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RAW HUMAN NATURE: Tré Cotten returns to ILM to play dream role, Othello

Actor Tré Cotten and director Mirla Criste Thompson sit down to discuss ‘Othello,’ opening this week at Ruth & Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall.

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD: Tré Cotten and Courtney Rickert in ‘Othello.’ Photo by James Bowling

DELAYED OPENING: As of Wednesday, April 24, “Othello” has been delayed, and will open May 2 and run for two weekends instead of three. Under physician’s orders, Tré Cotten had to step down; the title role will be played by his understudy, Ben Hart.

Tré Cotten has returned to Wilmington after graduating from University of Washington’s School of Drama with his master’s degree. Though the accomplishment is a big deal, Cotten has overcome some of life’s biggest tribulations during his schooling, like battling prostate cancer these last two years, for which now he is in remission. “The thing I love most about being back is seeing the people [with whom] I started my journey,” he notes.

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD: Tré Cotten and Courtney Rickert in ‘Othello.’ Photo by James Bowling

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD: Tré Cotten and Courtney Rickert in ‘Othello.’ Photo by James Bowling

Cotten has plans to set up Wilmington as one of his homebases—a place that launched his theatre career. It seems fitting he will play one of Shakespeare’s most noble characters—Othello, a soldier known for his strength. It’s a role Cotten has dreamt of portraying since watching Laurence Fishburne in the 1995 film adaption. Local director Mirla Criste Thompson has been working with Cotten and cast as part of Cube Theatre’s season at Thalian.

“I consider this community my home and [the theatre community] is my family who helped me find who I was as an individual,” he says. “I love [how] all are welcome in the theatre community and how much the community overall supports the arts in Wilmington.”

Cotten sat down with Criste Thompson, to discuss the classic play, which runs April 25 – May 12 at the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre in Thalian. The two dissect character traits, text, and expectations they hope the audience brings to the show.

Tré Cotten (TC): Mirla, what brought you to the Wilmington theatre community?

Mirla Criste Thompson (MCT): Zach Hanner, artistic director at TheatreNOW. He was doing a sort of “karaoke,” singer-songwriter set at a little bar downtown. He and Alisa Harris immediately welcomed me with open arms and gave me a couple of things to direct, which were a lot of fun. Since then, I’ve enjoyed working with the people in this very distinct kind of theatre community.

MCT: What have you been up to, Tré, since you left Wilmington?

TC: Once I finished UNCW, I took a summer job on Bald Head Island, doing their ghost hunt and kids theatre activities. From there I started graduate school at the University of Washington School of Drama, played Mark Antony at the Virginia Shakespeare festival and also Orsino in a musical called “Illyria,” a “Twelfth Night” musical. At the Act Theatre in Seattle, I originated a role in a play called “Daisy.”

Then I had a life-altering course: I was diagnosed with cancer. I decided I felt strong enough to take that on while in graduate school … and I was scared out of my mind. But that was key: learning, through a battle with cancer, that I could be my own strength, and I could educate myself about my own health.

Magically, my career kept going upward. I’ve been blessed to travel and see “hills whose heads touch heaven.” I played the Prince in “Cinderella” last summer and [did] another play called “Kim’s Convenience.” We got picked up to tour in Canada in 2020.

Wilmington helped foster dreams, and now being here is a great opportunity to pour back into the community—specifically, to the minorities in the community. Because it’s 2019, we should see ourselves onstage.

TC: Do you remember the first time you saw or read Othello, Mirla?

MCT: Greenfield, Massachusetts—8th grade. Being a young person, it would have been very easy for me to have reacted with the essentialist idea that this character of African descent was, of course, written to be the murderer. Fortunately, my teachers were great, so we got the chance to really analyze the play in ways that were not so “black and white,” so to speak. I got to learn about and develop a love, not just for the language, but for the content of Shakespeare’s plays, that was beyond the cut-and-dry.

MCT: What was it exactly that brought you to “Othello”?

TC: It was the first time I saw a black man in a white society where he was respected. I was in high school and saw Laurence Fishburne played opposite Kenneth Branagh in the film. I got really curious and drifted into theatre. Growing up in the church, I heard a lot about Paul Robeson, which made me curious to see his journey of playing Othello—the first black man in the U.S., who didn’t have to burn cork and put on blackface. All the actors I admire, they’ve tried to tackle it, one of the roles I want to spend my life trying to understand.

So when you approached me about it, a role where a person of color can spread their wings, I couldn’t turn it down because the community needs to see that; these kids need to see that, so they know that it’s possible.

TC: But as director, Mirla, what’s your goal for the production?

MCT: I’m interested in finding out what makes it easy for Iago to accomplish all of the violence he hopes to implement. How is he able to easily cause the title character—by all accounts, a highly respected general, who has the ability to command, to keep people together, to keep himself together—how is Iago able to undo him? What about that speaks to the way people behave in this present society?

I feel tremendously as though Shakespeare was interested in digging for the “why,” not the obvious or simple. My goal is at least we as an audience can begin to go further than, “Oh, it’s just another angry black man killing his wife.” I think we’re bigger than that as a society. And this play is far more than that.

MCT: That being said, what have been the biggest challenges, and the best things about your process of developing Othello?

TC: Some challenges have been, honestly, going from nine rounds of chemotherapy and finishing up radiation to finding, as I create a human being, what it’s like when I feel like a stranger in my own body. Then say, “Well, OK,  this is how Othello’s feeling on this day.” Also, I have so much respect for the writing because of how it echoes and has rippled through time. Othello’s language is real to me because there’s been a lot of times in educational settings, growing up, in which I’ve been the only one of my hue in class, to where you feel like nobody understands the words you’re saying, so as an actor I found that challenging because it hits personal.

MCT: Tré, you’ve done a lot of research on the role and play. Has there been anything new or unexpected while evolving Othello?

TC: Yes! I would start with what I saw Othello dealing with, which I see in society: PTSD with military and PTSD with a lot of minorities based on generational issues that have been passed on. Othello is somebody who has both—being in slavery and [not really dealing with] the trauma over years.

Also, just being a soldier—having a violent streak because what else does one know?

Also, who his kryptonite is: Desdemona and Iago. The raw human attraction there is with someone who’s found their other—what it does to the human body when those mere neurons just activate.
And to trust friendship—what that looks like to always see the best in people and that be his Achilles heel. In some sense he’s a supersoldier—the perfect man. That just says how, as human beings, we aren’t perfect. I think it will be healthy for an audience to see.

I’m learning people’s perception already; knowing I’m playing Othello, their assumptions of, “Oh, you’re not a good guy.” As an artist I have to dissect that, and move about the world now based on how I heal with the roles I choose.

TC: What speaks to you about this show and do you have any advice for audiences seeing “Othello” for the first time?

MCT: First, I hope audiences read the play. The “surprise”—not knowing what happens at the end—that’s something our society seems to value a lot. For masterpieces of theatre, there’s something so valuable about being with the text before seeing it on its feet.

Secondly, there are so many things I think the audience needs to just experience without making a judgement. I’m hoping we are able to bring things they don’t expect. I’m hoping they will simply wait until the end, maybe even until after they’ve really digested it. Hopefully, they’ll read a little bit after they’ve seen the play. This particular play for me is like a jewel. So much of what the characters are expressing are done in ways that make my heart swell with love and admiration for the language of the play.

I’m also touched by how incredibly human everyone is. Othello has so many facets. We find this out by the middle of the play when he begins to show vulnerability, allows himself to be really “seen” by Iago. We peel him like an onion as the play progresses. He has the biggest arc in the play. I’m touched by that. I think we learn so much about our current society, just by watching and reading “Othello.” So many topics are really explored tremendously. We learn a lot about ourselves.

April 25-27, May 2-4 & 6, 9-11, 7:30 p.m.; April 28, May 5 & 12, 3 p.m.
Ruth & Bucky Stein Theatre
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $28 •

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