Awakening to The Tempest on Oguta Island

It’s tragic how one can read a story dozens of times and still miss who the hero is, who the villain is. Or that these personas can be one in the same. For a very long time now, I’ve wanted to mount a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. I wanted to tell the story of the wronged man orchestrating his own justice against those who have oppressed him. A story of the healing forces of the wilderness. A story of the usurped besting his usurper.

Damn, did I miss the point. Because there are bigger, more necessary stories within this play that need to be told, and they were staring me in the face the whole time. I was blind to them. I hope not willfully blind, but blind all the same. This is a symptom of my white privilege. The trickiness of white privilege is just how hard it can be to see when it resides in a pervasive environment, a totality of whiteness. Like trying to spot a moth in a snowstorm.

Performing as Master Prosper (aka Prospero) in Nnamdi Kanaga’s film adaptation of the play, Oguta Island, rewritten as an examination of British colonialism in his home country of Nigeria, I struggled with speaking the lines, berating my slave Onyeka (Caliban) with racist contempt and derision. Knowing that the actor playing opposite me was also the playwright and co-director – that he had asked me to speak these words – didn’t make it any easier to spew this venom at him. And it was clearly much harder for him: He shed tears at every rehearsal and during the filming.

When I first read the script, I thought Kanaga had pushed the racism further than the original, twisting a relatively benign or even comical relationship (it is billed as a comedy after all) into something more sinister to make his point. But then I went back to the original. It’s all there. Prospero is horribly vehement in his white supremacist bile. He sounds as bad any KKK-member, neo-Nazi or rabid Trumpaholic. How did I miss it?

I think what watered down Prospero’s racism for me, is that we are told that Caliban is not human, rather he’s some half-fish creature born of the union of the Devil and a witch. And even more, Prospero treated him better than he deserved until Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. But in speaking his words to another human being, to a Black man standing face-to-face with me, I had a revelation: when it comes to Caliban’s inhumanity, we only have Prospero’s word for it. Who’s to say that Prospero’s definition of Caliban as half-fish is any different than the racist colonizer or slave-holder’s definition of the African as half-monkey? Or as the Native American as “savage” for that matter? Was Sycorax an evil witch, as Prospero claims, or merely a practitioner of a religion other than Christianity? In this light, one may begin to wonder: did Caliban assault Miranda, or was it another example of Emmett Till, a mere accusation of a black man by a white woman is grounds for murder? We don’t have easy answers to these questions, and that is exactly the mark of great art – it asks difficult questions without simplistic answers.

But the point is, in 30 years of reading this play, I had never asked these questions. I accepted Prospero’s word at face value. I accepted that he was the rightful ruler of the island, I accepted that Caliban was a monster, that his mother was a witch. My white privilege blinded me to the white privilege that encompasses this entire play. Having to curse a fellow human as less-than-human, while watching tears stream down his face, awakened me to a whole new understanding of this play.

And it wasn’t until a few days after we finished filming, that this truth come crashing down on me like a tempest: Very likely, no Black or Indigenous person has ever read or watched this play without seeing the truth of it right away.

Visit Montana InSite Theatre on September 18, to view a free screening of the film, Oguta Island, by Nnamdi Kanaga, directed by Kanaga, Jennings Barmore and Gretchen E. Minton.

About marcbeaudin

Poems, plays, books, roads, trails.
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