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You are here: Home Leisure Arts & Culture Toni Morrison's Desdemona delivers a haunting,...
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26/05/2011Toni Morrison's Desdemona delivers a haunting, powerful "re-membering"

Toni Morrison's Desdemona delivers a haunting, powerful "re-membering" Expatica editor Erin Russell Thiessen reviews the Desdemona project, calling it a timely revision of Shakespeare's text.

In response to Peter Sellar's 2009 production of Othello, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and singer/song-writer Rokia Traore collaborate to create an intimate and profound conversation between Desdomona and her African nurse, Babary, from beyond the grave.

You may want to brush up on your Othello before watching this performance. The piece is, in essence, a dialogue with Shakespeare's original play. And, although writer Toni Morrison would not call herself a feminist, the result of this dialogue is a womanist revision of the play's characters and the norms set by the era in which they lived. Morrison's masterful tracing of sly, systemic modes of enslavement--of women, of Africans, of "others" and "villains"--is carefully brought to the fore through a series of monologues delivered by Desdemona (played by Elizabeth Marvel) in the afterlife. 

It is a project worthy of Morrison.

And project is indeed the right word for the production.  As Peter Sellars emphasizes in his introduction to the performance (he gives an opening talk each night), the piece is neither strictly theatre nor concert.  It is an ongoing project, a dialogue, and an exploration in which the audience are invited to take part.

Desdemona's dramatic monologues are interspersed with and layered over by Rokia Traore's haunting and very African music.  Rokia Traore, through her music and finally through direct dialogue, plays Desdemona's childhood nurse, the African Barbary.  And while the character is only given brief mention in Shakespeare, relating how she dies of a broken heart singing an epic tale of love and loss, Morrison gives her equal staging--and equal voice--with Desdemona in this project.

Barbary/Rokia and her three backup singers are needed by Desdemona in the strange afterlife she inhabits in the play, much as she was needed by Desdemona as a child when Barbary stood in as mother and best friend.  But now, in this "place of timelessness" (another important trope in Morrison's work), Barbary examines this "needfulness" in light of her servitude.

And yet Rokia Traore and the backup singers also provide an African sisterhood of sorts: encircling, comforting and guiding Desdomona as she sits at mourning "altars" spread intermittently across the stage.  In a manner reminiscent of African root-woman spirituality, Desdemona keens, wails, regrets, and "re-members" (puts together and recalls) at a series of altars made up of everyday found objects.

The staging is brilliant, sparse.

The women are barefoot; the men (stage left, inconspicuous) are not.

Elizabeth Marvel's acting is powerful and haunting, as ever.

This Brussels performance (it premiered 15 June in Vienna) was particularly impactful, being held in a theatre a short distance away from the European parliament where a commission is currently examining reinstating border checkpoints to keep out illegal North African immigrants.  In this production, as in Shakespeare's original play, Othello is a black African who has made his way to "Europe", and the top ranks of Venice's armies.  Now, at a time when Northern Africans are escaping to Italy and crossing Europe's Schengen borders and when parliament is debating closing these borders to such persons, this play becomes a commentary on very current affairs.  A timely revision of Shakespeare's text and a revisitation of how lies, political ambition and fearmongering lead to tragedy.

The performance runs from May 26-29 at the KVS theatre in coproduction with BOZAR theatre. After a short break, the piece will then run in Paris and Berlin in the Autumn. It will show in London in July 2012.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Desdemona

Dates and hours
26 > 29.05.2011 - 20:00 (Introduction by Peter Sellars - 19:00)

Location
KVS - Salle Bol
146 Rue de Laeken
1000 Brussels

Text Toni Morrison

Music Rokia Traoré
Musical Interpretation Rokia Traoré + Band & Chorus
Actor Elizabeth Marvel
Director Peter Sellars

Language
In English, surtitled in Dutch and French

Price
Catégorie I: € 36 / 30
Catégorie II: € 20 / 16

Info & tickets
BOZAR +32 (0)2 507 82 00 - www.bozar.be | KVS: T 02 210 11 12 - www.kvs.be

Coproduction: Wiener Festwochen ,Théâtre Nanterre - Amandiers, Cal Performances, Berkeley, California , Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts, New YorK, Spielzeit'europa I Berliner, Festspiele, Barbican, London, Arts, Council London and London 2012 Festival

Copresentation: BOZAR THEATRE | KVS

 

 

 




4 reactions to this article

Georgia in NC posted: 2011-05-27 14:08:01

Can you please quote a source for your statement that Toni Morrison would not call herself a feminist?

Erin Russell Thiessen, Editor BE posted: 2011-05-31 12:22:17

Hi Georgia,
Thanks for the excellent question.
In Salon she stated that she thinks "it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things."
Jaffrey, Zia (February 2, 1998). "The Salon Interview with Toni Morrison". Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/books/int/1998/02/cov_si_02int.html.

Margaret Atwood has also made similar comments. It raises the question: what defines a feminist writer? What are your thoughts as to the Morrison quote? Would you define her as a feminist writer?

Ken posted: 2011-10-27 19:51:04

I saw this performed last evening (10/26/2011) at Zellerbach Playhouse at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the reviews to date no one has mentioned that Morrison's writing for this piece is ham fisted polemic making it hard to believe that Desdemona was written by a Nobel Laureate for literature. At the same time the props and setting lent nothing to the basic concept and appeared to be designed only to fill up an empty stage.

At Zellerbach a sophisticated audience was polite but clearly not impressed.

Louis Profeta posted: 2012-04-12 17:10:24

Read Toni Morrison's Beloved, this past weekend, in complete awe. Didn't know stories so deep existed. Will Desdemona be coming to New York at some future time, I'm so impressed.

4 reactions to this article

Georgia in NC posted: 2011-05-27 14:08:01

Can you please quote a source for your statement that Toni Morrison would not call herself a feminist?

Erin Russell Thiessen, Editor BE posted: 2011-05-31 12:22:17

Hi Georgia,
Thanks for the excellent question.
In Salon she stated that she thinks "it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things."
Jaffrey, Zia (February 2, 1998). "The Salon Interview with Toni Morrison". Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/books/int/1998/02/cov_si_02int.html.

Margaret Atwood has also made similar comments. It raises the question: what defines a feminist writer? What are your thoughts as to the Morrison quote? Would you define her as a feminist writer?

Ken posted: 2011-10-27 19:51:04

I saw this performed last evening (10/26/2011) at Zellerbach Playhouse at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the reviews to date no one has mentioned that Morrison's writing for this piece is ham fisted polemic making it hard to believe that Desdemona was written by a Nobel Laureate for literature. At the same time the props and setting lent nothing to the basic concept and appeared to be designed only to fill up an empty stage.

At Zellerbach a sophisticated audience was polite but clearly not impressed.

Louis Profeta posted: 2012-04-12 17:10:24

Read Toni Morrison's Beloved, this past weekend, in complete awe. Didn't know stories so deep existed. Will Desdemona be coming to New York at some future time, I'm so impressed.

 
 
 
 
 
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