CHICAGO (AP) — 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.'"