Arts & Culture
Is This the Greatest Sight in Central Park?
Othello star Chukwudi Iwuji on the importance of Shakespeare in the Park.
IMAGE JOAN MARCUS
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Of everything one might see in Central Park this summer, Chukwudi Iwuji is among the most exciting. That’s because the dynamic actor—who theatergoers will recognize from this year’s The Low Road, and TV buffs might remember from Quantico and Doctor Who—is playing the title role in Othello, which opened this week as part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park programming. Here, Iwuji explains the appeal of performing outdoors in an unpredictable New York summer and the enduring draw of Shakespeare.

You landed the title role in Othello, which is playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It’s not your first time doing Shakespeare in the Park; what made you want to return?

I’ve had an ongoing relationship with the Public Theater. A few years back, I did Antony and Cleopatra with them, and I remember on opening night, [artistic director] Oskar Eustis pulled me aside and was like, “I want to do big things with you.”

Then, I spent most of last year in London, working on Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre and working on a television project. But when I got back to New York, I was at the Public for a function and someone mentioned to me they were thinking of doing Othello. I kept it to myself, but when I was having a conversation on the phone with my manager a week later, I was saying that I had spent a chunk of the last year doing theater and wanted to focus on more film and TV work—then I said, “barring the Public calling and offering me Othello in the Park.” But I didn’t think that we should worry about that for a while. And lo and behold, two weeks later that’s exactly what happened. They called and they said we would like to sit down with you about possibly doing Othello.

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Chukwudi Iwuji and Corey Stoll in Othello.

What makes it that kind of a must for you? I imagine it’s not the easiest job you’ve ever had, working outside in the New York summer.

You know, in the first week we started this show, it rained twice on two different performances. On one of them we actually held the show; we had two rain delays, and it wasn’t until the third time we actually carried on the show—and even then, it drizzled throughout the final scene. Of course, there’s part of me that says, “Oh it’s raining and it isn’t perfect,” but on both occasions, about 500 people still stayed, and if the audiences are out there saying that despite all of that, I don’t know how we as performers can say no to them.

The shows are also magical, and those performances are the ones people remember. Audiences are going to go away and says, “I remember sitting through the rain and watching Othello. We had to stop twice, but we stayed and we powered through it.” We are deeply aware of the tradition of the Delacorte: You will perform through rain or shine, and I love that.

On the night I saw Othello, there were raccoons scampering across the stage. What’s the wildest interaction you’ve had with nature doing this show?

During our first preview, [the actor playing] Cassio and I were about to make our entrance, but then the raccoon actually came through our entrance ahead of us and just walked across the stage. I just watched, and when it got to the end of the stage about 1,900 people applauded the raccoon. It was a perfect entrance.


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Heather Lind and Chukwudi Iwuji in Othello.

Shakespeare in the Park productions are such an integral part of New York summers. They’re not new shows, so what keeps people clamoring to attend?

When it comes to Shakespeare, the reason people keep wanting to revisit the play isn’t about the actual stories. I think what makes them continue to seem relevant is that the man understood things, and he was always writing about human nature. He borrowed or stole the stories to help frame his concepts, which came from studying human beings. The reason we keep coming back to this is because he keeps speaking to human nature—and ultimately, we don’t change. I think you look at this play and say, “What’s constantly still getting in the way of people living their lives?” I generally believe that Shakespeare works because when people come to it, they listen. They hear a phrase and they go, “Oh my god. He’s speaking to me.”

Before you took this part, you said you were hoping to do some work that didn’t involve being on stage. Is that part of what’s next for you?

Like Michael Corleone said in Godfather 3: When I try to get out, they drag me back in. I’ve said so many times, “I’m done, I need to take a break from Shakespeare.” But he’s so freaking good.

The thing I’m really excited about is that I’ve written this screenplay about Ira Aldridge, who was an African American actor who moved from New York to London in 1824 and became the most famous actor in Europe. The piece that made him most famous around the world was Othello, and it’s incredible that at a stage where we’re moving forward with development of this project, Othello should fall on my lap.

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This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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