Ted Lange knows there are people who will never see him beyond “The Love Boat.”
“There’s a lot of skepticism, because I’m not known for (stage work),” said the actor. “I remember going to the New York Shakespeare Festival and they really didn’t want to see me--you know, I’m sitcom. I read a scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for Jack O’Brien at the Old Globe, and he said (with surprise), ‘You’re good . Why do you do television?’ I said, ‘Um, it’s kind of a way to make a living.’ ”
“Love Boat” did more than provide the actor with a substantial living during its 1977-86 run; its success is now enabling Lange (who spent 10 years directing local theater before his TV break) to stage and star in his own production of “Othello” at the Inner City Cultural Center.
Lange was introduced to the idea four years ago, when he was taking a Shakespeare course at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts--and the instructor suggested he read a scene from “Othello.”
“I said, ‘I’m a black actor and you want me to read ‘Othello’? What a cliche.’ If you’re black and you say you do Shakespeare, everyone immediately goes to Othello or Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus'; those are the two (black) roles. I’d done ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Henry VI,’ ‘Macbeth'--and here’s this guy asking me to do ‘Othello.’ I said ‘Come on.’ He said, ‘What is it--are you afraid?’ ”
Propelled by that challenge, the Oakland native took a closer look at the play, and discovered it was not at all what he had remembered.
“I had always avoided the play,” Lange said. “I had a prejudice against it because it was for a black man, and I didn’t want to do what people expected me to do. Also, I’d seen it a number of times, and it never knocked me out. But when I started to read it, I said, ‘The people I saw do it--they missed the point! Which is that it’s a love story, a passionate love story between a man and a woman. Most people play up the villainy and manipulation between Iago and Othello. But that’s just a part of it.”
Six months ago, Lange decided to stop rhapsodizing about the play and do something about it. That day, he booked the space at ICCC and started doing research.
It began by entreating former “Love Boat” co-star Fred Grandy (now a U.S. representative from Iowa) to get him into the Folger Library in Washington, where the information on famous stage Othellos included stacks of books and pictures--even a lock of Edmund Kean’s hair and swatches of the fabric samples used for Paul Robeson’s Moor.
“The fun of doing this is the homework,” Lange said. “You take in as much as you can, then it all goes into helping you find what you’re going to do with the part.”
Beyond the visual ideas, Lange developed some strong opinions about the physical production.
“I read that Robeson had to stand a certain distance (from Desdemona). At that time, a black man couldn’t get close to a white woman. Here, we’re real close. It’s a very loving relationship, particularly in the first three acts. In other productions, they play the tragedy before it becomes a tragedy--as if they knew some doom and gloom was impending. There is no doom and gloom in the first three acts. So you play it with joy and love and the beauty of the honeymoon.”
As for Iago’s villainy, “He’s not just this bad guy ,” Lange said, alluding to references in the text about Iago’s belief that Cassius and Othello had slept with his wife--and that Iago himself was in love with Desdemona (a major premise in il Cinthio’s original story, on which Shakespeare based his play).
Further, the director--who hasn’t altered the text except for trims--has added a scene of his own: Othello and Desdemona’s marriage ceremony, played in pantomime, which opens the play.
Lange has also cast the production in a racially conscious way:
“You can cast colorblind and it doesn’t lose anything. But by the same token, when you cast for color, you make a point about something. My ‘Othello’ makes a point, because I’ve cast both Othello and Iago as black. So you have two black men functioning in a predominantly white society.”
Reflecting black-on-black violence in our own times? “Sure. But you could do ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ with black actors and point up something else.”
This production, he adds, has been focused for black audiences.
“Part of the focus is making Iago black. But there are other things, too--subtleties in a black life style they’ll recognize that white audiences wouldn’t. Black women will understand when they see a black man with a white woman, and black men will understand about two black men dealing with a white woman.”