Her First Remembrance

27. October, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #104: Desdemona, Cal Performances, October 26.

Rokia Traoré, Fatim Kouyaté, Bintou Soumbounou, Kadiatou Sangaré and Tina Benko in Desdemona. Photo by Peter DaSilva.

By Sam Hurwitt

Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona came out of a bargain of sorts with director Peter Sellars.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist convinced Sellars to direct Othello in New York two years ago, despite the fact that he was under the impression that he hated that play, and in exchange he spurred her to write her own response to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Making its US debut at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse courtesy of Cal Performances, Morrison’s piece gives voice to those who remain voiceless in the Elizabethan original, especially Desdemona herself–the young bride murdered by her husband Othello the day after her wedding because the vicious Iago has convinced him that she’s been unfaithful. She also fills in a lot of the back story and interior life of the Moorish general Othello himself, whom we don’t really get to know in the classic tragedy aside from his all-consuming pride, jealousy and rage.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only Desdemona in the Bay Area at the moment. San Francisco’s Boxcar Theatre is currently playing Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief and accompanied it with a short run of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) earlier in October.

Morrison created her version in long-distance collaboration with Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, who composed haunting songs that she plays onstage with two other musicians and three backup singers. Traoré also plays Barbary, the nurse who raised Desdemona, who’s mentioned only once in Othello but who captured the imagination of Morrison, Sellars and Traoré. In Elizabethan England, “Barbary” was a term for Africa, and the idea of this Venetian politician’s daughter being raised by an African woman was irresistible for the modern collaborators.

Traoré’s voice is hauntingly beautiful, well underscored by the lovely female harmonies of Fatim Kouyaté, Bintou Soumbounou, and Kadiatou Sangaré. The distinctly African songs are splendid if long, with Traoré often accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, accompanied by gents Mamah Diabaté on the stringed instrument n’goni and Mamadyba Camara on the large harp-lute kora. Traoré sings in Mali’s Bamanankan language, except for a couple of songs in English, including her arrangement of “The Willow Song” from Othello. All the text is supertitled on a floor-to-ceiling screen at the back of the stage, including the spoken text that’s already in English.

Besides stools and assorted African instruments, the stage for Sellars’s production is littered with a few bright white neon tubes with lines of clear glass bottles in front of them. What the bottles signify, if anything, is unclear, but these bars tend to light up when characters meet in the afterlife. The rest of the time James T Ingalls’s lighting is kept low, illuminated by small, dim light bulbs hanging from cords or perches in jugs near the performers.

The entire show takes place in the timeless afterlife, where Desdemona is at last free to speak her mind. Tina Benko is spellbinding as Desdemona, a fierce and forceful presence who bitterly describes how her parents tried to quash her willful nature and turn her into a meek and subservient society girl, her father’s fury as she rejected suitor after suitor, and her rapt enchantment when she met this magnetic Moorish officer with a glint in his eye that reminded Desdemona of the African nurse who had felt like the only one who understood her.

Benko also embodies other characters that are beautifully drawn in her voice and bearing. She recreates conversations between Desdemona and Othello in which he woos her intensely; enchants her with tales of far-off lands with Amazons and people with no heads whose faces are embedded in their chests; and tells her about the horrific atrocities he’s committed in military service and confesses the perverse pleasure he took in them. Her Othello’s strong, deep, accented voice makes immediately clear what she ever saw in him. She performs a haunting encounter between Desdemona’s mother and Othello’s father after their children are dead and a bitter confrontation between Desdemona and Emilia, her attendant who betrayed her by concealing the plots of her own husband, Iago.

In fact, Iago’s one of the only characters not present in this piece. Even Cassio, who’d been used as a pawn to arouse Othello’s jealousy, shows up in voiceover (a male voice), glorying in his newfound power and spitting on the memory of both Othello and Desdemona. Cassio’s warmongering, authoritarian speech is the only part that feels extraneous, like a George W. Bush stand-in. Otherwise Morrison’s dense, poetic monologues and dialogue are beautifully wrought, very intense and heightened but in a way appropriate to the tale she’s telling. There are observations about a certain savagery in men that makes them see women as objects to be won and discarded; in any other context these statements might seem shrill overgeneralizations, but these women have earned this view of men, lived it every day and finally died of it. Morrison gets deep under the skin of these characters we thought we knew but never really did, opens up their wounds and lets them bleed.

And although Desdemona is called on the carpet again and again, challenged to examine her privilege by Emilia, Barbary and even Othello, it’s she who finally gets the last word. That’s what makes Desdemona the best kind of companion piece to Othello—one that challenges and deepens our understanding of the original text rather than existing solely in reaction to it. This piece makes us understand what it was that Morrison so loved in Shakespeare’s play to begin with, that made her spur Sellars to get over his initial aversion to the surface of the piece and explore what lies beneath.

Desdemona runs through October 29 at Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley. http://calperfs.berkeley.edu

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