OJAI : Festival Finds Othello Lead in Alabama

Staging a Shakespeare play is always a challenge for any production company.

But the organizers of the Ojai Shakespeare Festival faced an especially tough challenge with its latest production of “Othello.”

“The problem is simple,” the director of the play, which kicked off Friday night at the Libbey Bowl, stated in a recent news release. “Where in Ventura County do we find a black actor?”

Geoff Foley, manager of the Shakespeare Festival, said finding black actors in the Ojai area to play the lead role was next to impossible. The city had 27 black residents, according to the 1990 census. Blacks only make up 2.2% of the county’s population.


“If you just look at the demographics and numbers, they’re not on our side,” Foley said.

Foley said Director Paul Backer auditioned six black actors for the Othello role, two of them near his home in Santa Monica. No black actors showed up when Backer staged auditions in Ojai.

But festival organizers finally found their man in Shriff Hasan, 41.

Backer, who was Hasan’s voice and speech instructor at L.A. City College’s theatre academy several years ago, contacted Hasan last spring about the role of Othello. A 20-year veteran of the stage, Hasan was teaching theatre at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.


Hasan agreed to do the part, saying that Backer had directed him previously in a different production.

“He knew my capabilities as an actor,” Hasan said.

“Othello” opened Friday evening and will stage a show each night this weekend. Three more shows are scheduled next weekend. Admission is $12 and $15, with reduced prices for seniors and teen-agers.