An interview with Obisdian Theatre’s Artistic Director Philip Akin
>> Photo by David Hou
“ … our stories are a lot of people’s stories. I think sometimes, from what I see from writers, there’s a kind of slightly parochial vision, a narrowing vision. As if black stories are only the Underground Railroad or only immigrant stories or only becoming aware of being Black stories.”
- Philip Akin
It’s nine days before Philip Akin is due at Stratford to prepare for the run of Othello. “I’m not even packed yet” he tells me, as we sit down at Obsidian Theatre’s office on a busy afternoon. Finishing up some bookkeeping matters, he smiles while bemoaning the fact that too little time is left for pure creativity amid the mountains of administrative duties. It’s hard not to notice that he is a man with a purpose.
The artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, Philip Akin has been an actor/producer for the last 30 years. The Kingston, Jamaica born and Oshawa, Ontario raised thespian was the very first acting graduate of the Ryerson Theatre School in 1975. He jokes that the only reason why he was the first graduate is because his last name begins with an “A”.“It’s a fine line between lots of experience and feeling old” he says as he recalls his early days fresh out of theatre school. “When I was coming out of theatre school, I said I’ll be ready to do Othello at 35 because I’ll be old enough then. And I think the big guy upstairs heard me. He just heard the numbers wrong and thought I thought I said 53. Because that’s when I first did it.”
Akin refers above to his baptism of fire playing Othello on stage several years ago at the Vancouver Arts Club. Elaborating on that experience, he says:
“I’m really glad I did. I don’t think it was necessarily my best work but it gave me a great insight. Othello is a hard part. It’s a kicking hard part. … The play should be called Iago. … Iago gets to be the bad guy. He spends most of his time talking directly to the audience. So he can win them over to his side.
Othello is written in such a way that it’s a classic Shakespearian trap. You walk off stage feeling one way, Iago does a monologue, you come back in and your whole world has changed. But it all changed off-stage. Nobody saw it. So there’s a dramatic switch in Othello’s character from one minute to the next.
So I think I fell a little bit into the classic trap when I did it in Vancouver. It’s that you play before the switch kind of like Dudley Doo … the true blue guy. The more true blue you are, the harder it is to make the switch to the jealous guy -- and the less believable it is. So how do I start to build in the right thread in the first act and a half but make it plausible for the last three acts? On one level that’s what makes it very tricky. On another level, emotionally, it’s a killer.”
However, in his most recent incarnation as Othello, currently being staged at the annual Stratford Festival (since June 2nd through to September 22nd), Philip Akin felt ready for the challenge. While he had to perform eight 3-hour shows a week in Vancouver, ripping himself emotionally every time, the load at Stratford is now reduced to a maximum of six shows per week divided between Othello and a smaller part as Crooks in Of Mice and Men.
>> Photo by David Hou
Nonetheless, the importance of his debut at Stratford as Othello is not lost to Akin who recognises that: “This is a huge adventure for me. … I’m trying not to put a lot of pressure on myself. But I’m really aware that I’m the first black Canadian guy to do Othello at Stratford.”
Indeed, while there had been numerous stage renditions of Shakespeare’s Othello in the 54 previous seasons at the Stratford Festival, the role of Othello had hitherto always been played by black Americans or white actors in black face.
When I asked Philip Akin what he thought about the Stratford Festival’s stated intent to be increasingly inclusive of the non-white voices and experiences, he said he is pleasantly surprised. “I’ve been a huge critic of Stratford for a lot of years. Just like everybody else. But there are some things going on with that organisation which have impressed me. … They have a ways to go but at least they’re on the way.”
He is also quick to point out that his stance is independent of the fact that he got the part to play Othello or that the Stratford Festival has been a generous supporter of Obsidian Theatre. “People who know me know very well that I speak frankly and don’t pull my punches. … They’ve [Stratford] had a lot of years to mess this up. So I’m not expecting them to solve it in 2 or 3. And as long as they have an ongoing commitment to this, then I’ll give them props for it” he adds.
But two words that will send Philip Akin spinning into the rant path are: “cultural diversity”. Specifically discussing government agencies and arts funding bodies, Akin exclaims:
“What happens in a lot of service organizations and the like [is] first of all they form a cultural diversity committee. So it’s just cultural diversity issues. When it should be a non-White committee for not-White issues. But that would hit people in the face too hard. So they hide it under that polite crap.
And what you have then is non-White issues are put on a sidetrack, on a side burner. They should only exist at Jane & Finch. No!
Non-white issues are mainstream issues. They should be in the mainstream. This comes from the States but I’ve heard people use it. It’s called a “big tent.” And they mean it to mean it includes all races, all people. And I say: “I don’t want to be in no big tent. I want to be in the big house. … I don’t want to be a cultural refugee in my own country.”
What Philip Akin wants to see is for companies like Obsidian Theatre to have equal clout and resources as any other mainstream theatre company. Unlike the all-too-common historical dramas of plight set exclusively in the U.S. or the Caribbean, Akin believes that any contemporary story can be a black story. And the black experience should be part and parcel of the mainstream experience. “When I see black playwrights being forced into only writing about certain topics or they won’t get a shot at getting productions, you’re not helping an artist achieve everything they can do when you slot them. So my belief is not about slotting it’s about opening up possibilities.”
Othello runs at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival through September 22 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, 1-800-567-1600. See details below for a day trip on July 14th organized by Obsidian Theatre .