Toni Morrison's response to Othello discusses racism, war and oppression.
Toni Morrison, Rokia Traoré, Peter Sellars
Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison wrote Desdemona after a discussion about Othello with the director Peter Sellars. In her text, Morrison gives a voice to Desdemona, who has a modest part in Shakespeare’s play. From the grave, the Shakespearean heroine fills in the gaps in her history through an intimate dialogue with Barbary, the African nanny who raised her. With her mesmerising voice, award-winning Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré gives a virtuoso performance as Barbary. Traoré also wrote the music, which is performed by two musicians and two singers from Mali. As the play develops, we discover a different Desdemona, a woman of flesh and blood who speaks out about racism, war and oppression – and the transformative power of love.
Desdemona is the joint work of three prominent artists from three different backgrounds: the American writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Toni Morrison, the Malinese singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré and the American director Peter Sellars. The story of Desdemona, Othello's wife in Shakespeare's play of the same title, written in 1603-1604, is conveyed in a critical and poetic manner. Desdemona premiered in May 2011 in Vienna and subsequently toured London, New York and Berkeley, as well as many other cities, with great success.
The idea for the project sprang from a long-running discussion about Othello between Peter Sellars (who staged his version of the play in 2009) and Toni Morrison. Shakespeare's play is about a power struggle in which the love relationship between the Moorish prince Othello and Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator and trader, is used to control Othello. The interference of the power hungry and scheming Iago undermines their relationship, which ends with Othello killing Desdemona and then, after realising the mistake he has made, committing suicide. Its themes of betrayal and jealousy are still very topical, but Sellars and Morrison were also interested in the hidden themes of racism and the repression of women. They came up with the idea of developing a response to Othello, from the perspective of his dead lover. Morrison enables Desdemona to speak from the hereafter, filling in the gaps in her history. She is talking with 'Barbary' (Barbara in the original), the maid of Desdemona's mother who only appears in a few lines in Shakespeare's original, at the end of Act IV, when Desdemona remembers a song the maid always used to sing, and how she died of a broken heart with that song, the famous 'Willow Song', on her lips.
From this scant amount of information, Morrison developed her brilliant re-write. 'Barbary' signified Africa in Shakespeare's England. In Desdemona, Barbary is the African wet nurse who brought up Desdemona and taught her to sing. By giving Barbary a voice – in Shakespeare she does not appear on stage – Morrison gives Africa a voice. The Malinese Rokia Traoré playing Barbary is no coincidence. The American actress Tina Benko plays Desdemona. In the notes accompanying the work Sellars writes: “In Shakespeare's tragedies, the ideal woman – Desdemona, Virgilia, Cordelia – was mainly quiet. For Toni Morrison the ideal woman does not keep silent. At last she speaks out. And while she is speaking, she unveils secrets, intimates her hopes and her dreams, but also admits her own shortcomings. Shakespeare's Desdemona is divine perfection, but Toni Morrison allows her to be human, to make mistakes and, eventually, with eternity stretching out in front of her, to learn and to understand.”
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traoré was raised in the Malinese tradition of the griots, troubadours whose songs carry forward in time the history of their people. From these traditional songs and her own rich brand of world music, Traoré has composed music for herself, two musicians (on two string instruments: ngoni and kora) and two singers. All these performers are from Mali. The dialogue between Barbary and Desdemona is mirrored in the relationship between the music and the text. The music is acoustic and the dialogue is very intimate; from centuries of racism and oppression an unheard history emerges. Desdemona is no longer a teenager, but an adult woman who is strong enough to face her illusions and able to let go of them.
In his notes Sellars writes: “In Act I, Shakespeare has Othello tell the Venetian Senate that he and Desdemona fell in love as he told her stories—stories of his youth as a child soldier, stories of suffering, reversal, privation, salvation, transformation and human generosity. Stories of 'other worlds.' Toni Morrison wanted to write those stories. “
The persistence of the past in the present through song, memory and practice is a consistent theme of Ms. Morrison’s work. Similarly, in African traditions the dead are quite undead as long as their stories are still told. In Desdemona death offers a safe environment to speak out about the things that one could not speak about during one's life. By turning Othello on its head and adding a female and African perspective, Morrison and Traoré have created a richly layered and enchanting work for music theatre.
Toni Morrison (1931) is an American writer. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for literature. She is the last American to whom that honour fell. Morrison was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford and grew up in Ohio. From 1949-1953 she studied English literature at Howard University in Washington D.C.. In 1955 she earned her Master of Arts degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. After graduation, she taught English at various universities. From 1958 until 1964 she was married to Harold Morrison, who she had two children with. After her divorce Morrison became an editor at Random House, where she played a vital role in bringing Afro-American literature into the mainstream. As a writer she debuted in 1970 with The bluest eye. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved. Black women often play a major role in her work. As well as novels, Morrison has also written non-fiction, stage plays, children's books and an opera libretto. She lectured at the State University of New York and from 1989 until 2006 she held a Chair at Princeton University. She received many honorary doctorates, including a doctorate from Oxford University in 2005 and a doctorate from Rutgers University in 2011. In 2012 she was awarded the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Since 2012, she has been writer in residence at Oberlin College. She is currently a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
Rokia Traoré (1974) is a Malinese singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Her instrument of choice is the guitar. Traoré is a member of the ethnic group of the Bambara and grew up as the daughter of a diplomat. It's unusual for members of the nobility, to which Traoré belongs, to perform as musicians; nevertheless, she started to perform in public in the 1990's and in 1997 she embarked on a successful collaboration with the well-known Malinese musician Ali Farka Touré, which considerably raised her profile. Traoré’s debut album Mouneissa was released in 1998 to great critical acclaim. The reviewers praised her fresh treatment and unusual combination of several Malinese music traditions and instruments, such as the ngoni and the balafon. The album sold over 40,000 copies in Europe. Her second album Wanita (2000), which she wrote and arranged entirely herself, was nominated by the New York Times as one of its critics' albums of the year. On Bowmboï (2003) she collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, amongst others. The album was awarded the prestigious BBC Radio 3 World Music Award. Traoré played at the WOMAD festival in 2004 and completed her first tour of North-America that same year. In 2005 she performed at the Youssou N'dour and Friends concert in Geneva and in 2006 she staged her performance Wati at Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope festival (part of the celebrations commemorating Mozart's 250th birthday in Vienna). Her most recent album, Tchamantche (2008), is more Western in character. At the first Songlines Music Awards in 2009, Traoré won Best Artist. In April 2013 her new album, Beautiful Africa, will be released.
Peter Sellars (1957) is an American theatre and opera director. He holds a Chair at the University of California in Los Angeles. Sellars graduated from Harvard in 1981. In his last year there he staged a production of Händel's Orlando with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gaining him national recognition. In 1983 he received a MacArthur Foundation Award. That same year, Sellars started as a director at the Boston Shakespeare Company. From 1984 until 1986, he was a director with the American National Theater in Washington D.C., making a name for himself with contemporary stagings of The Count of Monte Christo and a number of Mozart operas. In 1991 he made his directorial debut in film with the silent movie The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez. At the festivals of Salzburg and Glyndebourne, Sellars has directed various contemporary operas, including St. François d'Assise by Messiaen, Mathis der Maler by Hindemith and Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti. Sellars has regularly collaborated with the composer John Adams. He directed the premiere of Adams’ Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991); for Doctor Atomic (2005) he wrote the libretto; and for Adams’ most recent opera, A flowering tree (2006), he co-wrote the libretto with the composer. In 2011 Sellars directed a production of Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera New York, which was broadcast live in cinemas worldwide. He also directed the premieres of the operas L'amour de loin (2000) and Adriana Mater (2006) by Kaija Saariaho. In 1999 Sellars was awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize and in 2005 he received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. In 2009 he directed Othello at New York City's Public Theatre, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Iago.
This performance was made possible with support by
- Toni Morrison
- Rokia Traoré
- Peter Sellars
- lighting design
- James F. Ingalls
- sound design
- Alexis Giraud
- Rokia Traoré (Barbary)
- Tina Benko
- Mamah Diabate,
- Fatim Kouyate
- Bintou Soumbounou
- Mamadyba Camara
- stage manager
- Anne Dechene
- assistant stage manager
- Janet Y. Takami
- Diane J. Malecki
- commissioned by
- Wiener Festwochen
- Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers
- Cal Performances ,Berkeley, California
- Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York
- spielzeit’europa | Berliner Festspiele
- Barbican, London
- Arts Council London
- London 2012 Festival