Postell Pringle | Performer of the week

Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare Theater Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Othello is one of the meatiest roles in Shakespeare’s canon, and he gets a hard-hitting hip-hop makeover in the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Played with ferocity by Postell Pringle, this Othello is a hip-hop mogul whose life falls apart when he makes Iago the opener’s opener on a new tour. A native of Decatur, Georgia, Pringle performed in high-school theater to meet girls, but didn’t have designs on a professional career when he enrolled at Bates College. After a short-lived college basketball career, he chose to pursue theater after being in a directing class scene. He met Q Brother GQ when they were visiting Bates College as high school seniors, and they stayed friends after GQ moved to New York to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Pringle performed on the East Coast before moving to Chicago with the Q Brothers to understudy Royal George’s production of The Bomb-itty of Errors in 2001. He is now a Q Brothers company member, regularly performing with the other three Othello: The Remix cast members as the Retar Crew. Pringle talks to us about the adaptation process, his hip-hop influences and how his music career has informed his acting.

Do you have any role in the adaptation process?

Yeah, definitely. This one started with a version of the play that G started, then J jumped in, and once they had a script they brought [Jackson Doran and me] in. It was very different, and we tried us playing different characters that the ones we play now, but as soon as we had a script, Jackson and I were brought into the room. As a unit, Q Brothers is J and G but now includes myself and Jackson as company members, and we now all write these plays together. We’re a band called the Retar Crew, and because of us knowing each other over the years and all the work that we’ve generated together, there’s a familiarity in terms of their writing for me. They know that because I’m from the South, I can bend certain words that a New York rapper wouldn’t. They know my cadences. The know Jackson’s sense of humor and they also know that we know their strengths as rappers and actors. Raptors as we like to call ourselves. [Laughs.] Seriously, we have a joke where if one of us says, “I think you need to make a different acting choice,” we have to say, “Wait wait wait, excuse me? We’re rapting.”

Once we had the script, we came into the room and tried different things. It’s very organic and workmanlike. Literally, we take a page and we go through and say that joke works, that joke not so much, that line can be stronger, this scene looks like it should have a musical number as opposed to just the rhyming book we do. We consider the rapping throughout the whole show the book, and then we start to inject the musical numbers. In this case, Jackson and I would be like, “I would say something more like this,” and “What if this line were changed?” Because it’s G and J’s baby, they have the final say how it goes, but they also know they’re trying to write to our strengths, and that’s what we do in all of our work. We write for each other all the time.

Did you look to contemporary hip-hop artists for inspiration or listen to any music to get in character?

Not necessarily. We’re real hip-hop heads, so we marinade the story in our own knowledge of hip-hop as it stands. We don’t necessarily take any contemporary artists and use that as inspiration. However, we make correlations to current artists, for sure. When we were in one of the first two workshops for the play, late night having some drinks, J and I were discussing this Othello, him being a guy from the street who came from poverty and pulled himself up from the bootstrap to rise to actual fame and fortune. Originally, I was thinking him more in the vein of Jay-Z, and I was playing it that way. Even though Jay-Z comes from the projects in Bed-Stuy, he immediately had a certain polish to him, and he had a certain sophistication that he both aspired to and emoted in his music. Which automatically separated him from other people because he felt like something to aspire to even when he was just 25. But it was also him trying to aspire to be that kind of person, to be the polished, classy mogul as opposed to the hard street sound.

When I was interpreting the character, I was doing a lot more smooth stuff. I wouldn’t say I was doing anything like Jay-Z, but that was in my mind. We had a talk about it, and then we figured out that my Othello was less like Jay-Z and more like the Game. He emotes a certain sophistication too, but there’s something much more sharp and gritty about his sound. His language is less moneyed. He talks less about affluence and just more about life as a kid in gangs and stuff like that. His cadence is much more precise; it’s less languid and he doesn’t play with space as much as Jay-Z. I didn’t go and listen to Game songs, but because I’m already a fan, I changed my cadence to become something much sharper and matching my voice to be something more unsophisticated, which I thought helped bring out the purity of this Othello character. He isn’t a guy that aspired to be a mogul or anything like that, he is actually a street kid with an amazing talent, and he got to the point that it cut through everything because of how pure it is. It took him to the top, and because of how good he is, he gets torn down.

Have you found that your time as a hip-hop artist has informed your work as an actor?

Hell yeah, definitely. (Laughs.) It’s really interesting, I can’t separate the two. My boy J, anytime we have a talkback, he always says that all he ever wanted to do was be a rapper when he was a kid. And it’s funny that we ended up in a realm that isn’t necessarily for rappers, and we found a way to still rap for a living. I was the same way. I started making hip-hop when I was in high school. I was in a band and I made a bunch of mixtapes and records throughout college, and when the theater bug bit me, I remember I got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying my personal growth as a hip-hop artist. So I was like, “Let me just stop making hip-hop and try concentrating on just theater and that art.” I’m a bit of an idiot, but I thought that I had to stop everything altogether, so I stopped making hip-hop. I took two years and concentrated on just acting, and I did it. And the funny thing is, at the end of two years, a friend of mine made some beats and asked me, “Yo, you wanna pop in on a song? Just come on over.” So I came over and ended up writing this song and then the next day I was just like, “Let’s make some more songs.” I couldn’t stay away. It’s like Al Pacino in The Godfather. Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in.

The funny thing was, I discovered that something about my clarity was different. My voice, which I never used to like, felt more mature on the track. I could do more things with it. And my approach to the actual attack of the line and getting punchlines and the arc of the storytelling within the song was all different. I realized that it had to do with the fact that I had just been working on acting, working on playing characters. I say all that to say that I wouldn’t be as good of a rapper if I hadn’t spent all that time working on just acting and just theater. And it ended up being vice versa. I always thought they were two fields that I had to separate and be good in one or the other, and the truth is one informs the other. So it only makes sense that as soon as G called me about doing Bomb-itty and we started working on Funk it Up…, by then it made complete sense to me. Here’s the chance to do the two things I want to do.

Othello: The Remix runs through April 28 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (800 E Grand Ave, 312-595-5600). Read our review of Othello: The Remix.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)