New Boy a Powerful Adaptation of Othello

NEW BOY (2017)
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Shakespeare, 204 pages

It is its own sad commentary that a play written in 1603 is as relevant today as it was in the Elizabethan Age. I refer to Othello, William Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy of race, jealousy, backstabbing, and hatred. Tracy Chevalier is one of our era’s finest writers, but she didn’t need to draw deep from her creative well to imagine the parallels between Shakespeare’s Moorish protagonist and modern day African Americans. She does so, however, with considerable panache.

Although some of my closest friends shake their heads in disbelief when I say it, I often enjoy modern adaptations of Shakespeare more than the Bard himself. My excuse is that I don’t speak Elizabethan and don’t know anyone not swaddled in stage garb that does. I also find it flat out weird that so many “modern” Shakespeare adaptations dress actors in non-Elizabethan clothing that invites us to think outside the 17th century, yet retain old Billy’s original language. I say if you’re going to adapt, go for it. Chevalier does and it works for me.

She transports Othello to a suburban Washington, DC elementary school playground in 1970. She set it then for many reasons, not the least of which, as another bard put it, the times they were a changin’. But think of new worlds being born, not ones fully grown. The civil rights movement caused racism to wobble, but it did not fall. What better place to examine social strain than a playground shot through with bubbling hormones and Lord of the Flies power dynamics? Tween romances emerge and run their course in a single day, pacts are forged and broken during a kickball game, and only foolish teachers imagined themselves in control of the kids or their own moral centers.

Into this world comes the eponymous new boy: sixth grader Osei Kokote, a Ghana-born black child who thinks he knows the drill of being in still another new school. As the son of a top-level diplomat, Osei has lived in many places and is far more intelligent and worldly than his new peers. But he’s also the only black child in the school and his plan to lay low is undermined when fair-skinned Dee offers mentorship, friendship, and girl crush romance. As you no doubt surmised, Osei is Othello and Dee a pre-adolescent Desdemona. Our cast will also sport a Cassio named Caspar, a Bianca (Blanca), a Rodrigo (Rod), an Emilia (Mimi), and a dangerous Iago (Ian). A racist teacher serves as a sort of composite Doge/Brabantio. Chevalier shows her clever hand by literally infantilizing Shakespeare’s tragedy and replacing his props with those of childhood: cafeteria food, jump rope rhymes, pencil boxes….  

Some reviewers have criticized New Boy for what they see an unrealistic precociousness on the part of its eleven- and twelve-year-old cast. I suspect some of them would be shocked if they ever spent playground time with tweens, but never mind. In a more fundamental sense they miss the point. After all, Shakespeare’s characters were equally unrealistic—unless you think 1603 London was overrun with 15th century Moors and Venetians. Othello was a tragedy, but it was also an allegory of power, ambition, covetousness, betrayal, and race.

This brings us full circle. We need not imagine ourselves in the 15th or 17th century; nor does it matter if we recall 1970. New Boy works for the same reason Othello works: the allegories are contemporary sociology. That, folks, is the very essence of what makes Othello/New Boy truly tragic.

Rob Weir

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