Abby Henkin on Court Theatre’s Return

A word with Abby Henkin ’21 on her role in Court Theatre’s return to in-person performances.



Members of the cast of “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” in rehearsal.

By Charlie Kolodziej, Contributor

The Maroon recently sat down with Abby Henkin (A.B. ’21) to talk about her role in Court’s show The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, directed by Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent. The production marked Court Theatre’s official return to in-person theater.

Chicago Maroon: So just to start off, could you tell me a little bit about your role in the production?

AH: My title is assistant director and dramaturg associate. And so as dramaturg, I helped compile the actor packets, and I did a bunch of research in coordination with the Production Dramaturg Jocelyn Prince. So I was looking for resources that I thought could be useful for the actors as they began to develop these characters. I mean, the way we approached this [production] was kind of untraditional in that we wanted to explore who these kinds of people would be across time and across different places, especially places that felt like they were in some kind of transition. So things like for Desdemona—What does it mean to be a white girl raised by a woman of color in this kind of domestic service role? Or for Othello, looking at like Colin Powell, and what does it mean to be a Black general in these kinds of societies? And so doing a lot of that kind of research. As assistant director, I came to every rehearsal, and I supported Gabby and Charlie, our two co-directors, by offering thoughts and feedback in real time and by taking notes for them, all kinds of those things. The other thing is that we had these weekly salons. We had two-hour meetings almost every Friday for about a year and a half. That was where a lot of this kind of research and thinking came together. I pulled research about historical Venice and Cyprus, so it’s not like literally we’re here, but I thought there [were] some really interesting things about the connotations of these places. And so I brought those into discussion, bringing like key events into discussion, for these two-hour sessions where we tried to break down, like, how do we do this production in a way that’s new and that is healing and liberating rather than the oppressive ways that the text often gets done? I mean, it’s a really complex text with a very loaded history, and so we wanted to try to explore what we could do with it.

CM: What was that process of exploration like? I’m thinking about the context of this particular cultural moment, with the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid happening.

AH: I mean yeah, it’s been a pretty long cultural moment. I mean, just having the extra time, which we only had because of COVID. And because we couldn’t go into production was obviously critical to our thinking, and to be able to give us the time to break down all of these things. We were having these discussions during the summer after the George Floyd shooting, and after Black Lives Matter, or while Black Lives Matter protests were going on throughout the country. I mean, I don't think we made any direct decisions because of that, but it was definitely something that was filtering through all of our minds. Figuring out that allyship from my perspective and figuring out how do we break some of these assumptions about what the play is, especially when we are confronting and reckoning with so many of these assumptions in our larger world—that felt really vital and really important.

CM: And could you say a little more about how you and the crew handled COVID as well? I understand Court had to take a long hiatus because of it.

AH: Yeah, I mean, especially because these conversations were happening before vaccines, before we knew what it would mean to produce safely, there were a lot of ideas. Things like we talked about having actors in masks for a while. And they were in masks for most of our rehearsal process. But we had talked about having that as part of [the] design choices that ended up informing these veils that you saw in the prologue even though we ended up not having them fully masked. I mean, the design was really John Kolbert, who’s the designer. The set design was absolutely brilliant. It was designed to be something that could be COVID flexible. And then it became about immersing in this world the idea of the theater being something that we were building and reconstructing both after COVID and after this kind of Black Lives Matter moment. All of these things were just in our minds and floating around as we started to make these key decisions ahead of time. And then once we knew people would be vaccinated, obviously that gave greater flexibility and more options, but a lot of the original thinking was informed by how these unusual times broke our usual thought batteries.

CM: Yeah, and to your point about this being a complicated political time, I was also curious about how casting decisions were made for the play. It was really cool to see Bianca’s character played by drag performer Darren Patin (aka Chicago’s own queen Ari Gato!) and Sheldon D. Brown as Cassio in roles that have historically gone to white actors.

AH: Yeah, so I mean I didn’t go to auditions or anything. That was Gabby and Charlie and our amazing casting director, Becca, but a lot of these decisions were informed by conversations we had in the salons. And so the idea with Bianca came out of a long conversation after I brought in some dramaturgical research about courtesans. So in the text, Bianca is a courtesan, and exactly what Shakespeare meant with that has been contested. Venetian courtesans are super interesting. They were women who did do sex work, but they also had an ability to move in a way that was really unusual for Venetian women. Historically, Venetian women were kind of treated like furniture, so that’s kind of the class Desdemona would be in. But the courtesans would write. They would engage in public discourse. They were women who could talk and move in society in a way that was really interesting and unusual. And so we were curious with Bianca what a contemporary way of pushing gender boundaries and expectations would be in a way that still feels fresh and kind of [like] pushing the conversation forward. So we started to make that translation from what a courtesan might be to what a drag queen might be. And again, it’s not a one to one, like, I’m not saying that all drag queens do sex work or anything crazy like that, but it was something about questioning how she moves through this world. And then also questioning Cassio’s sexuality and questioning both the discipline and the vulnerability we thought we could find in this character. [There were also] questions about how their relationship can move in contrast to some of these other relationships that we see in the play. So part of my research was reading all of these production histories, and so I read a bunch of production reviews where they’re like, this cast had a multiracial cast, but we don’t really know why, like, we don’t know how it changed or commented on the play. So when Charlie and Gabby decided to cast actors they felt would really connect with the characters rather than look a certain way, I was down for that. But I also was like, we need to make sure we’re considering everyone’s backgrounds and how that affects this world. And they were like, yes, 100%. So that is where we approached from. So they cast people they felt really made interesting choices in the auditions. And they’d worked with Sheldon before on Oedipus, so they knew him and how he could really bring full life to these characters. And so we went from casting people we really liked and then building with all this dramaturgical work, the character based on who they were and based on what they brought, rather than trying to push them into certain roles. I think casting Cassio as a Black man ended up really opening some interesting questions and possibilities. And so I think that ended up being a great choice, but it had to be one that we worked through and reckoned with. We all had questions about some of the way the language works and especially the racist language in the play, some of which we held on to reckon with, like how that would change in response to having a Black Cassio. Sheldon really embodies this role so well. His performance is gorgeous every night. And I think it ended up opening productive questions. I think that's true for all the characters. I mean, even casting Amelia as an Argentinian woman and how some of her racist language towards Othello shifts when you have two people of color engaging in these debates. So I think it was exciting to figure out what we discovered because we cast these people we felt were great and then dealt with all the heady questions later.

CM: That’s awesome, and could you say a little more about what the salons were like?

AH: Yeah. So they were Zoom salons. They were generally two hours. And we would really just come with questions, and Gabby and Charlie would lead. And you know, they ranged from very heady questions like, What’s a palimpsest? There was this TED talk by Titus Kaphar. That was a real jumping-off point where he has this painting, and there’s a Black man servant and a bunch of white people. And he’s like, they’ve written more about this dog over here than this guy. So he used this kind of paint that becomes lighter over time to paint over the white people and change the focus. It was really super interesting, and so we talked about that a lot. And then later in the process, there were real, tangible questions like, What dresses should the women wear? And what should the set look like? And so it gave us time to figure out the vision of the production in a group. Something that I think is unusual, and that I really respect Gabby and Charlie for, is that they encourage their designers to talk about anything. I mean, they were obviously focused on their work, but they also could talk about the larger vision, you know, the costume designer could have thoughts on the set design, and it was a really collaborative space. I think that was really to everyone’s benefit.

CM: I’m also curious how you guys came to the theater-in-the-round setup. I thought that was really dynamic.

AH: No, I agree. And John Kolbert is brilliant. I think originally, there were questions about COVID and about distance, so that was one impulse. But it was also this impulse of, there's a question of making Othello the center, and that was something we talked about a lot—What does it mean to make Othello the center? And then, What does it mean to have everyone become fuller humans around him rather than, like, Iago, who traditionally steals focus because that’s how the play is written? And so I think part of having the audience on stage too was inviting them to be close to this story, to be immersed in this story, and to have to reckon with this in a very intimate way. Intimacy, in all kinds of forms, was so critical to our conceptions—inviting the audience into some of that intimacy and into some of that closeness. It was really just this impulse to have everyone immersed, to have this world moving around them, and to invite them to deal with it closely, kind of in the way that we had.

Court Theatre’s production of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice ended its run on December 5, 2021, but keep an eye out for its upcoming show The Lady From the Sea, opening February 25, 2022.

—Charlie Kolodziej