Entertainment » Theatre

Seth Gilliam :: From ’The Wire’ to ’Othello’

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Aug 7, 2010

Is the vengeful Iago gay? For some 400 years, theatergoers have puzzled over the motives of Othello's trusted ensign. When Othello takes a wife and passes over Iago for a promotion to lieutenant, the disgruntled aide masterminds the Moorish general's tragic end with a maniacal guile.

TV and stage luminary Seth Gilliam (Sgt. Ellis Carver on HBO's The Wire and Clayton Hughes on HBO's Oz) plays Othello in Shakespeare's immortal drama on Boston Common through August 15. Gilliam wasn't the least bit surprised when asked if Iago's motives stem from his covert sexual attraction. "It's one of the thoughts I had." Then adds that another such character in Shakespeare's canon is Romeo's flamboyant, affable friend Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

But, he says, that a spurned homosexual lover's revenge "is not the way it's done in this production."

Rather, in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company staging directed by Steven Maler, a more conventional portrait is explored. "Iago has been passed over (by Othello) for a promotion and also he feels Othello slept with his wife," sums up Gilliam.

The actor sees Othello as "an outsider trying to fit in. He's far more than merely a jealous guy."

Breakthrough film role

Gilliam came to the attention of discerning audiences when he portrayed the rebellious slave James Hemings in the 1995 James Ivory film Thomas Jefferson in Paris, an historical drama set in 1784 to 1789. Gilliam pulled emotions from the black experience to give dimension to the young man whom Jefferson had brought to Paris to learn gourmet cooking skills to take back to the plantation kitchens of Montecello. In revolutionary Paris, James seizes his freedom and urges his sister Sally Hemings to do likewise.

"I was 25 or 26 when I did that role," recalls Gilliam; "it was my second film." The actor says that director Ivory "gave me a great deal of freedom (in developing the role). He said that directing was about casting which gave his actors the opportunity to be three dimensional and work from the heart. Once we did a take, he’d ask me if I wanted to do another."

When the Jefferson In Paris movie, which focused on Jefferson’s bedding Sally Hemings and her resulting pregnancy, came out, "it was regarded as controversial," notes Gilliam. Historians had denied the blood relationship between Jefferson and his family members and Jefferson’s slaves, although African Americans always credited the heritage. When DNA studies showed that there were black descendants, opinion about the quality of the film shifted. "It used to be a two star movie, now it’s rated as four stars when it’s shown on TV," said Gilliam.

The gritty crime drama The Wire set in the context of life in an American city, specifically Baltimore, concluded in March, 2008 after five highly acclaimed seasons.

Since then, Gilliam says he’s been offered roles in a couple of series "but they were police officers. I think it would be a death knoll to my career to go from one cop to another but I am looking to act in another series."

First love: theater

He prefers to work in all three mediums: theater, film, and TV, "and living in New York as I do, the likelihood of my doing theater is greater than if I relocated to L.A. Theater is very much my first love."

Gilliam grew up in the northern reaches of Manhattan in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, "poor but didn’t know it." His mom worked as a psychiatric nurse often on very long shifts.

He says he was an imaginative child, a characteristic that wasn’t appreciated in his neighborhood but this capacity for dreaming has carried over to his approach to roles, as has keeping himself to himself. "I think I bring a sense of trying to keep things under wraps to a role.

"With Othello, in particular, he has an active imagination, he fills in the blanks a lot and a good deal of it is no good for him," he said.

As a child Gilliam recognized "a good deal of undercurrents. A relative who talks a little too louder than need be; his emotions are just below the surface" Bringing that sort of emotional life to a role means for Gilliam that "I have no problem letting my emotions go and then reeling them back in."

Othello murders his wife, but Shakespeare was unlikely to have seen her death as domestic violence.

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production has this modern day issue very much in mind, however, says Gilliam, when told that there is an increased number of domestic violence killings in reported in Massachusetts which has a total of 16 such deaths thus far this year. Expert advice was solicited from people who work in the domestic violence field.

The actor believes some people will see the relevance but others "will come looking to inhabit another world (as they watch the play) and not the world they live in."

Othello is being through performed August 15, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 7 pm, weather permitting. Performances take place outdoors at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common and are presented in partnership with the City of Boston and Mayor Menino.


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