A new hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s Othello, commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, is wowing 450 inmates at the Cook County Jail.
There are an onstage DJ and four actors reinventing the story. The original version featured Othello, a powerful Moorish warrior tricked by his villainous aide Iago into killing Othello’s wife, Desdemona, because Iago was enraged by Othello’s promotion of Cassio. The hip-hop version depicts a rap mogul, Othello, who enrages Iago, a rap performer, by promoting another rapper, Cassio, instead.
Two Chicago brothers who are rappers, GQ and JQ, AKA Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum, wrote and directed the show. It has played in England, South Korea, and Chicago. The show features lyrics such as these: “Othello never knew, he was getting schemed on by a member of his crew,” and “Othello wouldn’t listen, he had crazy tunnel vision.”
Inmates were impressed; Kristy Montgomery , 29, said the message hit home: “Be careful of who you affiliate with because they might not actually be your friends. they might be somebody who wants to bring you down.” She added that the lesson was good for her “because I befriend the wrong people all the time.” Another inmate, Kevin Fields, 19, said, “You can’t affect what other people do but you can affect what you do. In hip-hop I finally found out what Shakespeare really is.”
GQ boasted of his Shakespearean merit:
So at the very basic level they’re doing the exact same thing. You’re using poetic devices like alliteration and repetition and onomatopoeia … We’re treating the work with respect and we think he was a genius, but our philosophy is you want to live on as an art form 500 years later, you can’t do it the same way … Without trying to sound like we’re tooting our own horn, I would like to think that at our best moments … it’s like seeing great Shakespeare in his time.
As Shakespeare had Iago orate: “But he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”