CHICAGO – Act I, Scene 1: Four actors in well-worn coveralls and baseball caps take the stage at the county jail. They're here to tell a tale of love, friendship, jealousy and betrayal. It's the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. The names and themes haven't changed over the centuries, but the language has a modern beat:
"Othello never knew,
He was getting schemed on by a member of his crew."
This is "Othello: The Remix," the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's hip-hop version of the tragedy about a valiant Moor deceived by the villainous Iago into mistakenly believing his wife has been unfaithful. After Othello smothers his beloved Desdemona, he discovers she has been true to him and he kills himself.
That's how Shakespeare told the story 400 years ago. This modern version – performed this week for about 450 Cook County jail inmates – is a rhyming, rapping, poetic homage to the Bard. It has singing and dancing. Comic touches. Men playing women. Sexual talk. References to Eddie Murphy and James Brown. A throbbing beat, courtesy of an onstage DJ.
And a contemporary plot: MC Othello is a self-made rap star turned music mogul (think Jay-Z) who decides to promote Cassio, a middle-of-the-road rapper, by releasing his next album. That infuriates the edgy rapper, Iago, who vows revenge. "This is why I hate the Moor," he fumes. "He never lets me get my foot in the door." Desdemona is not seen, but heard, her ethereal golden pipes occasionally filling the air.
The Othello remix is the brainchild of two Chicago brothers and rappers – GQ and JQ, aka Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum. They wrote and directed the show, honing 40 or so drafts over eight months into a 75-minute rhyme-a-thon. It's their third hip-hop translation of Shakespeare, following "The Bomb-itty of Errors" and "Funk It Up About Nothin.'"
This new Othello – originally commissioned by Shakespeare's Globe Theater – has been performed in England, South Korea and Chicago. Taking the play behind bars, the brothers expected the inmates would apply themes written four centuries ago to their own lives today.
"The story of Othello and the way we paint it is very much of an outsider who kind of never feels like he's at home and I think that will be pretty relatable," JQ said before the show. "[It] really comes down to choices and repercussions and often times, poor choices. I can't imagine that some people in there are not going to feel that."
He also points to the show's last words:
"In a cold, dark and unforgiving system we struggle with our destiny. When the world is crumbling, emerge from the rubble and your love will surely set you free."
Watching the inmates applaud and laugh in the sweltering gym, Rick Boynton, the show's creative producer, says he quickly knew the play had struck a chord.
Othello "listened to forces outside himself that made him do really unspeakable acts," he says. "At the end of the play he says, 'Look what happened and heed my advice.' ... I think the tension and the resonance of that theme in the room were incredible."
Kristy Montgomery, a 29-year-old inmate, agrees. She came away from the play believing it had an important message:
"Be careful of who you affiliate yourself with because they might not actually be your friends. They might be somebody who wants to bring you down." It's a lesson, she says, she'll try to heed "because I befriend the wrong people all the time."
Julian Campbell, 19, who swayed with the beat as Iago danced his way down the aisle, found his own meaning in the story. He said it offered two lessons: "Be honest. Always think before you do."
And Kevin Fields, a third inmate, also 19, saw the play as a cautionary tale. "You can't affect what other people do but you can affect what you do," he says. The show was an eye-opener in another way: "In hip-hop," he adds, "I finally found out what Shakespeare really is."
So is it really Shakespeare when Othello briefly dons a blond wig and joins a faux backup girl singing group a la Motown to belt out "It's a Man's World" (shades of the James Brown classic)? And are lines such as "''Othello wouldn't listen, He had crazy tunnel vision" a true reflection of the Bard's greatness?
Absolutely, says GQ.
"Shakespeare was a master storyteller who used musical language and poetry," he says, and the same is true of the best rappers. "So at the very basic level they're doing the exact same thing. ... You're using poetic devices like alliteration and repetition and onomatopoeia. ... They're very similar art forms despite how different they tend to be judged."
The Q brothers say they have chatted with Shakespeare scholars and others who arrive at their shows skeptical and leave impressed. "We're treating the work with respect and we think he was a genius," GQ says. "But our philosophy is you want to live on as an art form 500 years later, you can't do it the same way."
In fact, GQ says, if Shakespeare were around nowadays, "I think he'd be doing this. He'd be a rapper."
The Q brothers are now working on a hip-hop version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and plan to eventually create hip-hop translations of all of Shakespeare's works, including "A Mad-Summer Night's Dream."
They not only admire the Bard, they also think their words measure up to his standards.
"Without trying to sound like we're tooting our own horn," GQ says, "I would like to think that at our best moments ... it's like seeing great Shakespeare in his time."