Toni Morrison, Peter Sellars, Rokia Traoré & Elizabeth Marvel raise ‘Desdemona’ from the dead
When everyone’s standing in front of a well-known sculpture, looking at it, don’t you feel compelled to go and look at it from behind? Just to see if it offers a totally different perspective, maybe? That’s what I like about Desdemona, by Toni Morrison, Rokia Traoré & Peter Sellars. Sure, we all know that woman from Shakespeare’s Othello, but who is she really? By trying to fill the gaps, Morrison, Traoré, Sellars and actress Elizabeth Marvel end up with a performance somewhere between literature, live music and theatre. Maybe it will be different for you, but I left the theatre (KVS, Brussels) totally enchanted by Traoré’s voice and music.
Even great minds like playing games. When Toni Morrison convinced Peter Sellars to stage a performance of Othello – a play he hated – in New York in 2009, he asked her for a small favor in return: a sequel, about Desdemona, the white wife of the Moor of Venice. The woman Morrison and Sellars think of as a female Jesus: the more love she gives, the more violence she receives. Morrison conceived her play as a post-mortem conversation between Desdemona and Barbary, her African nanny; the woman who raised her, used to tell her stories and sing African songs to her. Two women missing, even forbidden, in Othello, talking from the other side of time, reviewing the past and imagining the future.
But Desdemona doesn’t start out as a conversation. It’s first and foremost a monologue by Elizabeth Marvel. She is telling Desdemona’s story, switching swiftly from one voice (Desdemona) to the other (Othello). Once in a while, Rokia Traoré takes over, singing one of her soft, mesmerizing and almost meditative songs, beautifully accompanied by two musicians and three backing singers. It’s really only at the end of this Desdemona that Traoré starts talking too and starts to have a conversation with Marvel.
You’ll quickly notice that Morrison is rather ambitious. Hers is a story not only about this Shakespearean Desdemona, she talks about slavery and racial exploitation too, about racial and cultural diversity, about the issue of child soldiers and violence towards women. And that’s once again, why the combination of acting and music turns out to be a wonderful choice. Whenever you think all of this becomes a bit too much, there’s always Traoré soothing you with her songs.
This Desdemona will get you thinking about acting too. Personally I’m not so fond of the way Marvel tells this story; especially not in the beginning. It’s as if every word, every sentence has to be infused with a different emotion and a different expression on her face, and you end up with an actress trying to impress instead of putting herself at the service of a text. Sometimes just telling a story in a subdued manner can be way more impressive. But that’s my opinion. I know that it’s a question of taste. Some might be really in awe of this display of craftsmanship. I just thought that it didn’t go well with the purity of Traoré’s wonderful voice.