An Edmonton theatre company has cancelled its upcoming production of Othello, after the decision to cast a white woman in the leading role prompted anger and sharp criticism.

Walterdale Theatre Associates issued a statement Tuesday morning announcing the sudden cancellation of the Shakespearean tragedy, which had been set to open Feb. 8.

According to the statement, "both online and in-person threats" were received by members of the production from people who were angered by the casting of Linette J. Smith as Othello.

The role of Othello, described by Shakespeare as a "Moorish prince," is traditionally filled by a person of colour.

Smith told CBC News she stepped aside because of the controversy.

"I chose to leave the role, because to stay in the role was hurting too many people," Smith said in an email. "There were very strong messages that I wish I had received and listened to earlier in the process. Important conversations around diversity and inclusiveness that I needed to be more cognizant of.

"Some people said some hurtful and scary things in the journey, and I wish it could have been more from of place of teaching and kindness. But alas we are all on edge these days and emotions are heightened."

Smith did not provide CBC with further information about the alleged threats.

Police said in a statement that someone from the theatre "who allegedly received online threats" met with a constable Tuesday afternoon but decided not to file a formal complaint.

"This is a heart-breaking decision," Adam Kuss, president of the board of directors of Walterdale Theatre, said in a statement. "But as a community of volunteers and artists, we can't continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened."

The production was being billed as a "post-apocalyptic" interpretation of the Shakespearean classic, promising audiences would be "transported to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future, equal parts classical excellence, Mad Max, and David Bowie — definitely not your parents' Shakespeare!"

Anne Marie Szucs, artistic director of Walterdale Theatre and director of Othello, said other members of the theatre community had expressed concern over the casting.

'We're sorry this caused offence.' - Anne Marie Szucs, director, Othello

"We understand and appreciate those concerns," Szucs said in a statement  

"The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We're sorry this caused offence."

Patrons who already purchased tickets for the production are encouraged to contact Walterdale Theatre for ticketing information.

Reaction from arts community

The statement issued by the Waltderdale put more of the emphasis on the backlash rather than accountability, said Nasra Adem, the city's youth poet laureate and a local organizer of Black Arts Matter.

"The Walterdale is seen as the victim and the voices and concerns of the community weren't enough of a reason for the show to be cancelled," Adem said. 

"A lot of emphasis is put on these threats that we don't actually have any tangible evidence of."

Adem said she had discussions with the artistic director about the production before it was cancelled.

The motivation for those discussions was to make sure the actors, and those making decisions about the production, would take a broader look at who would be affected by the choices they make, she said.

The idea for the production was "ill-conceived," said John Hudson, artistic director for Edmonton's Shadow Theatre, who think the Walterdale did the right thing in shutting it down. 

When the colour of the persons' skin is so integral to the production, you have to think about casting, he said.

A change in gender is fine, but a person of colour should always play the role of Othello, said Hudson.

"If you can't cast it, don't do it."

'The cost of excluding race was too much'

Smith declined an interview request from CBC Edmonton, but posted a lengthy public apology on her Facebook page.

"I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100 per cent," Smith wrote on her Facebook page. "I did not think through in the accepting [the role] of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause.

'I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause' -  Linette J. Smith, actor

"My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women, and normalization of differently gendered relationships.

"In my naivety, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much."

With files from Lydia Neufeld