The play that is in fact a novel, or rather, an experimental hybrid that plays with genres and their form. It is also very adept with its language, somewhat stylized but with an air of authenticity especially when the black characters are center stage. They come alive before us with their tradition of “signifyin’,” a culturally unique form of wordplay that remains a highly current trope, and especially with the music scene that is part of who they are. In fact, add the blues to the hybrid nature of the novel/play, and a few visual cues that give the end of the book the feel of a Power Point presentation, and the end product is dizzyingly original, fast paced, delicious in its dialogue, and still leading inexorably to the same tragic outcome that the characters inherit from their Shakespearian ancestry.
The journey through New York and through parts of the Midwest and the South, on which Jaffe invites the reader to join these reborn characters, is set “20 minutes into the future” – and that in fact means a back-and-forth between the first couple of decades of the 21st century. It is contemporary enough that we recognize very current public figures and concerns, from Sarah Palin to Sarkozy, Limbaugh, and Berlusconi, and from the very recognizable sex-obsession of our century to an idea of terrorism hijacked by those fomenting hate against black people. It is futuristic enough to see into a possible near-future when things that could be considered somewhat subtle today reach their full manifestation as early, the book predicts, as 2015. A few examples: American football is now called BROOL and is no longer concealing the fact that it’s all about violence; conspiracy theories of today seem to have found embodiment in organizations such as the Body, the Godfearers, and the countercultural one, the Bikos – their conflicts ending in a clash that triggers the demise of Otis himself; the horn of Africa is the site of a nuclear disaster that somehow explains New York City having African street names in a hasty white guilt initiative; stadiums and ferries turn into prisons, leprosy is rampant among the poor, Google and Disney are performing genetic experiments in impoverished countries. All of these are our alternate but immediate past, a bizarre parallel present, and hopefully a future that can still be avoided if we pay attention to the social and political ills of our present.
And, of course, there is Desdemona, or Dez, the rich (and very white) daughter of Gillette Gillette, innocently and eternally passing along her wedding gift, now a chic scarf with a fish pattern that the contemporary Iago still manages to turn into an instrument for murder. Yes, the same Iago that we are familiar with, but just like the other characters, he is a character made more complex by a more complex world. Here, his centuries-old hate has gathered a few more possible explanations, such as the confusion at the beginning of this century, and the fact that Otis politely kicked him out of the blues band, Crawfish, though later he re-replaces a Cajun Cassio with Iago when Cassio injures a girl by accident, and then the band retains all four of members. Still, the damage to Iago’s ego seems to have been done, to which we can also add the fact that there will always be a distance between the very black Otis and the white harp-player Iago, who wants to belong but doesn’t know how else to do it but through manipulation, since his talents don’t quite get him where he wants to be.
The most delightful aspects of the book are, as one may imagine, the bits and pieces of blues songs that Jaffe very knowledgeably sprinkles the narrative with, enhancing the nostalgia of a chaotic world that can at any moment turn even more chaotic. There are many mentions of past and present “wailers” like Big Joe Williams or Robert Johnson, many scenes take place at the lively club Mahu where Crawfish performs, and now and then we run into soulful lines like “Thas right, talkin’ ‘bout the rich man’s lowdown ragin’ greed and hate,/What I’m singin’ ‘bout is love, Lord, which it done sealed Jumbo’s fate./Lo’d have mercy” (102).
Cinematic and mysterious at the same time, Othello Blues is both a cold shower as it sounds the alarm and calls for social and political vigilance, and a gentle stroll down Blues Street. In the end, this is an intriguing combination through which the author manages to bring new relevance to old themes, as the mix of desperation and longing that inhabits the blues is a great choice for the return of Othello.