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THEATER SCENE : 'Othello' Has Different Outlook at Ojai Festival : As a follower of Islam, actor Shriff Hasam brings an unusual perspective to the portrayal of the Moor.

August 04, 1994|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shriff Hasam, who stars in the Ojai Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello," has a limited background in Shakespeare. But, as a practitioner of Islam, the 41-year-old actor brings a relatively unusual perspective to his interpretation of the noble Moor.

Hasam--who, as a youth, shuttled back and forth between his mother in New Orleans and his father in Houston--was introduced to Shakespeare while attending a performance of "Macbeth" in New Orleans. Later, while attending Tuskegee University in Alabama, he became seriously involved in the theater--and Islam.

His classmates included Lionel Richie and other members of the band that would evolve into the Commodores. And there was a young man named Keenen Ivory Wayans, the future creator of the film "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" and the comedy series "In Living Color."

"He and I were among the people who helped get students interested in theater," Hasam recalled in a recent interview. "We got some other students together, hired a director and started doing plays."

Hasam discovered Islam after hearing about it from other students. "I didn't come into Islam because of Malcolm X," he stressed, "but through my own study. Everybody's looking for something, and I found what I was looking for when I became a Muslim."

While in Alabama, Hasam appeared in the film "Norma Rae," which starred Sally Field. He then moved to Los Angeles and won a role on the soap opera "Rituals." But a drunk driver ruined Hasam's prospects for soap stardom: After one episode, he was struck down and suffered a broken pelvis. While recuperating, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, subsequently earning his master's in theater from CalArts.

Hasam took teaching positions in Houston and, last year, was back at Tuskegee, where he started a theater program. He left after his one-year contract expired.

"They didn't want to spend money," he said ruefully. "They wanted to concentrate on the sciences."

Now, Hasam is seeking a teaching position in Southern California, "although at the moment, I'm concentrating all of my attention on the role of Othello. Of the many roles I've performed, Othello is the role that I've always wanted; it's a dream come true."

Ojai Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Paul Backer, who'd known Hasam since the Los Angeles City College days, had no trouble choosing him for the role.

"Of the six people who auditioned," Backer said, "a lot of them were pretty good, but I was looking for a bit more age and gravity. Because a lot of the plays that he has done are contemporary African American or African, Hasam taps into the ferocity that is contained in Othello's dignity.

"When Laurence Olivier or Anthony Hopkins or even classically trained black actors have played the role, Othello is more uptight, because he's a military leader. Hasam brings anger to the role."

Although his religion has made him more accepting of other cultures and beliefs, Hasam said he relates to Othello's anger.

"The fact that Othello is a Moor, who had to convert to Christianity in order to become acceptable to Venice society, is something I can understand," he said. "I had to give up a certain amount of my lifestyle when I became a Muslim."

*

There's plenty more Shakespeare in the works for this and next year, with no duplication scheduled--so far. Look for the Ojai Shakespeare Company's "Much Ado About Nothing" later this month and the Tour de Force Repertory Company production of "The Taming of the Shrew" at Thousand Oaks' Civic Arts Plaza in November.

The Moorpark-based California Shakespeare Company has just announced its schedule: "Love's Labours Lost" (September), "Anthony and Cleopatra" (November), "Henry V" (February) and "Twelfth Night" (April).

All are performed in the area infrequently, with the exception of "Much Ado," "Shrew" and "Twelfth Night," which seem to pop up every couple of weeks. And, so far, nobody's announced a production of the really overdone "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Romeo and Juliet."

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