This story begins on a Tuesday 15 years ago–exactly 15 years, actually. Dad is driving me to school. We are probably listening to NPR or the classical channel. I am studying for my math test and plotting how to eke out every last minute for studying between now and third period. As we crest Massachusetts Ave and officially cross the border into Washington DC, the outline of the National Cathedral looms in the distance, hazy in the still-sleepy fall morning. My school is usually easy to see. Mt. St. Alban is one of the highest points in the city, making the cathedral one of the tallest buildings in a capitol with severe height restrictions–for both aesthetic and security reasons. We have chapel on Tuesday before third period. I can study then, ignoring Reverend Orens, whose light breathy voice lends an air of false piety and annoys the shit out of me. I put my head back in my textbook and the skyline fades from view.
Two hours later, a fire-drill interrupts chapel, upsetting my study session—but at least I don’t have to hear that damn woman drone on. We line up outside the middle school on Wisconsin Ave, gossiping about nothing. What the fuck was up with the fire-drill? Maybe someone actually pulled the alarm. Some St. Alban boy prank. We’re ushered back into the all-purpose room, though by now chapel should be ending and my math test is going to suck. Why are we still wasting our time here?
Mrs. Williams comes in, grave. “I have to tell you that the twin towers of the World Trade Center have been hit.” There is a gasp of shock, followed by a low hum of chatter.
I think, “what?”.I mean, I vaguely remember Dad talking about the WTO marches/riots from the 90’s. And wasn’t there a previous incident at those buildings? Didn’t something similar happen in Oklahoma or Nairobi earlier? I honestly can’t place the significance of what Williams is saying, going on about planes and a suspected terrorist attack. A child of the late 80’s, I was in bowlcut hairstyles and OshKoshBiGosh overalls during the 90’s—you can’t expect me to know global context. Be happy I was awake and old enough to debate the Clinton impeachments in 5th grade. I remember Rwanda because Dad grew up in Africa and it was of considerable family discussion. So some capitalist towers have been attacked. Who gives?
I learn “who gives” wandering among fellow students in the halls. We’ve been dismissed and teachers had loosely suspended classes until further notice. No math test today. Then information begins to trickle, filter, flood in. The planes were passenger jets flying into NYC from across the country. Who had a parent scheduled on a business trip? Cell phone reception sucks around the Cathedral—too close to the Russian embassy we would joke—but today no one was getting through. A radio is on somewhere. A TV too, replaying the smoking buildings, the people jumping, the fall of the towers themselves. Sarah started getting upset—talking about fight or flight reflex. She doesn’t know where her father is. I’m not any comfort–I still don’t know anything.
Then another plane crashs into the Pentagon and everything kicks into high gear. New York was one thing. The Pentagon is Virginia, just over the river. Are they going to attack the White House? The President and Congress are now heading to undisclosed locations. Some of my classmates aren’t allowed to know where their parents are. Now there are rumors: Islamic religious extremists in NY and DC going after buildings of economic, government and cultural significance. What’s the tallest, most religiously important building in DC? …We’re evacuating. I’m not sure if there was a formal call or just an informal understanding: get out of the city. Get somewhere safe—whatever that means.
My neighbor drove me and her daughter home, past sirens and police, a town going into lockdown. And it’s still such a clear beautiful morning. Both loud and incredibly quiet. An apocalyptic too-calm before a storm when the light is a yellowed over-saturation. Everything is too clear and crisp to be exactly real. On our regular route home along Clara Barton Parkway, we pass the submarine testing facility. Where there were deer and Canadian geese just a couple hours ago, tanks now cover the adjacent fields, men in full battle kit with what look to be anti-missile rocket launchers, high tech cannon parking in the front yard. They stay there in varying levels of alert and available artillery for the next seven years. As I walked home from the neighbors, a spread of F-16s roar overhead, destination unknown.
The world had definitively changed in front of my eyes.
It was all very exciting.
Chapter 2. My mother bought a season subscription to Shakespeare Theatre of DC, for mother-daughter bonding opportunities I guess. We would go on Wednesday nights in order to hear the actors Q & A talkbacks (and I believe cheaper tickets) for the next four years. It would later become my unrequited dream to work with them and date the hot redheaded apprentice (either named Caleb, or who played a Caleb in Henry 4—whoever you are, call me). But in the 2002-3 season, we saw Winter’s Tale, Much Ado, and in early March, Richard III.
I fell hard for that play. It met me at the right time, an angsty 15 year old, in the right context, when everyone was debating the prospect of an unsavory war under an unpopular usurping president. A story rife with political intrigue and violent action—the substance of which House of Cards would be based on twice over for the BBC and Netflix. A cast of smart strong women who come under or combat the spell of one of the Bard’s ultimate bad boys. I would audition with the Lady Anne monologue for conservatory. (I know—so overdone.) And then Richard himself, conniving and conspiring with us, the audience. With me. He invited me in and permitted me to enjoy his cunning, callous humor; to root for his success if only to see that demonic smile as he scuttled across the stage (this was pre-Serkis’ Gollum, another beloved villain with a similarly odd gait).
The play was placed in World War 2 with a set of glass and metal, like an old hospital wing. A clear anteroom stage left, where many of the play’s side conversations took place. And murders. Plenty of people got killed in that antechamber. The moment that jarred were the young Princes, maybe 8 and 11 in this production. They came running in their patterned PJ’s, then started banging on the clear walls, muted screaming at the audience, who sat and did nothing as the antechamber filled with fog, an impromptu gaschamber.
In the summer of 6th grade I had a reoccurring nightmare of such a gaschamber. Chalk it up to too much reading Diary of Anne Frank and Night and other Holocaust literature and history. I would wake up choking, trying to reassure myself that I was only 1/8th jewish and would live. Wet saunas still give me an uneasy feeling and I don’t enjoy smoking anything. But watching the kids and their little hands and gaping mouths slide along the glass—living out my nightmare, because of my complicity with Richard, my new infatuation. I hadn’t felt so personally culpable for someone else’s pain since that time I let my baby brother fall down a flight of stairs. Only this time, I loved every moment of it. It was the coolest thing I had yet to see onstage, feeling for fictional characters. I had been bitten a bit by the acting bug before, but never had I felt so infected. It was a crush that bordered on bloodlust.
On the 20th of the same month, the US invaded Iraq. Cue Generation Kill (in case you need a refresher).
Passing over Guantanamo Bay, Lyddie England, Abu Ghraib and the torture scandals, my first visit to Stratford-upon-Avon and sleeping through the RSC’s staging of Hamlet because I had spent the previous night up in bed with my first boy, the re-election of George W. Bush, Hurrican Katrina, my college applications, auditions, and inappropriately public renunciation of Christianity, to the end of senior year. The feared and revered Donna Denize was teaching an elective English class on Shakespeare. We study Macbeth, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew. We end with Othello. No one is better equipped to peel back the discussion of racism in Othello and look at its darker underbelly than a terrrifying, powerful, nationally accredited black woman. When she says there’s more than racism at play, you believe her.
We try to unpack Iago, the most elusive of Shakespeare’s villains–or any other villain in literature, for that matter. Denize argues that Iago is guilty of an 8th deadly sin: Despair. Having read Dante’s Divine Comedy the semester before, I perk up, finally prepared to receive. Despair is an absolute negative, a belief in the complete lack of good; the world is completely fucked. It’s born out of Pride for Despair, a prizing of this belief above God, who is inherently positive (meaning that there is something here– not talking emotions or morals just yet). Iago fundamentally believes the world isn’t worth it, and gets existentially irked by those who think otherwise and sets up stratagems to prove he is right, even at his own expense.
This intepretation is reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Andrew Scott’s Moriarity. Director and teacher Declan Donnellan writes, “Pure despair is the only unforgivable sin, because it cannot realistically exist. Even the suicide hopes for death.” Donnellan is making the argument that an actor cannot play despair because it isn’t active. It must linger suspended in its negating, anti, all encompassing nothingness.
But Iago as a character springs from this very void. He is the re-incarnation of Vice from the morality plays. He is, from a philosophical, psychologica, and theological perspective, just evil. Like the Devil, he despairs absolutely. He doesn’t hope. He inflicts psychological horrors on arguably his closest companion for unsatisfying reasons. He doesn’t even die. There is this sickening assumption at the end of Othello that Iago just continues on in silent interminable hatred.
Can you tell I am intrigued by this? The same way I was fascinated by my own reaction to 9/11 or the boys in the gas chamber. Maybe because I can relate. What does that say about me?
That haunts me. And excites me. 10 years later, it still toys with me.
So in 2014, when someone approached me with “I’ve got time for projects. What would you want to work on?” it was obvious.
“A character study of Iago.”