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Desdemona's Riveting Multi-Dimensional Truths

October 26, 2011

Cal Performances

DesdemonaDesdemona, a theatre/music collaboration by author Toni Morrison; singer and composer Rokia Traoré; and opera, theater, and festival Director Peter Sellars, is art at its finest. The work, which has its US premiere at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse through Oct. 29, not only engages the mind and heart, but also impels us to sink deeper into the truths of who we are. It explores so many soul-shaking issues with such emotional depth, poetic beauty, and wisdom that it demands to be seen.

As explained in SFCV’s Desdemona feature, the piece came about when Morrison, our country’s only living Nobel laureate in literature, provoked the ever-provocative Sellars to explore the deeper meanings of Shakespeare’s Othello. Even as Sellars mounted an edgy production at the Vienna Festival in 2009, Morrison set about collaborating with Mali-born, international artist Traoré on a work that would explore the life and afterlife of Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Their way in was the understanding that the name of Desdemona’s maid, Barbary, signified that the white woman was nursed and raised by an African slave whose stories helped bond Desdemona to Othello.

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Desdemona: With Time Comes Change

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In this two-hour afterlife dialogue between Barbara (Traoré) and Desdemona (American actress Tina Benko), the women examine war, soldierhood, slavery, racism, and the mysteries of transcendent love. The means is dialogue by Morrison and songs by Traoré: their lyrics, in all but Desdemona’s response to Shakespeare’s Willow Song, are also Traoré’s. Without ever descending into polemic, the exchanges between Desdemona (whose name signifies “misery) and Barbary (whose imagined “real” name, Sa’ran, signifies “joy’) achieve a profundity that, as with Shakespeare’s play, cries out for in-depth study and analysis.

The Scenario

Sellars’ sparse setting places Traoré and Benko in front of three gifted female back-up singers (Fatim Kouyaté, Bintou Soumbounou, and Kadiatou Sangaré) and, off to the left, two extraordinary male musicians (Mamah Diabaté on n’goni and Mamadyba Camara on kora). The men aren’t hidden by any means. But their silence, and, save a brief tape of Casio’s voice, the representation of Othello and Iago solely through Benko’s extraordinarily gifted change of voices, makes clear that this is a story of women by women.

The stage seems illumined by a small number of hanging, bare bulbs. On its floor, in addition to instruments, are a few seats, the performers, several altars holding vessels and vials, a number of standing and suspended microphones, and three strangely shaped banks of lurid, halogen-tinted lights. There is little to distract from amplified dialogue and music, and the projections of Morrison’s English dialogue and translations of Traoré’s Bambara and French lyrics. This particular afterlife may need James F. Ingalls’ lighting design and Alexis Giraud’s huge bank of electronics in order to convey its message, but it cares nothing for wall hangings or plants from Home Depot.

Rarely do Desdemona and Barbary touch. Rather, they let their words and sounds do the touching. One of Desdemona’s most telling moments comes during governor Cassio’s dismaying diatribe about war and power. Similar to how many of us reacted to broadcast speeches of George W. Bush, Traoré and the musicians use the time to remove instruments, microphones, and a fair amount of cabling. Only Desdemona remains to listen to Cassio’s cold voice (uncredited in the program). When Barbary and the three singers rejoin her, the moving final tableau of five women drives home one of the work's messages that in the end, we will be remembered by how well we loved.

Malian Miracle

Tina Benko as DesdemonaTraoré, the winner of several awards, is an extraordinary artist. A diva in the truest sense, she is a surprisingly short, uncommonly erect woman, with a strong carriage and a voice that can transform from throaty, slightly cracked fragility to powerful, cutting authority. Most important, her instrument, like those of Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, and others in their select company, can touch the deepest levels of our being.

It may seem like hyperbole to place Traoré’s prowess as a lyricist on the same plane as Morrison’s, but the two women’s words unite to convey meanings that transcend the sum of their considerable parts. Dialogue such as “Only as a soldier could I excel and turn the unhappiness inside into exhilaration” and “Women try to survive since we cannot flourish” finds its counterpart in Traoré’s song. Her second song is shattering.

Only after an hour does a discussion of black versus white become explicit. But when it and other realities that humanity has transformed into polarities do surface, the implications are immense.

Desdemona is a tremendous achievement, one that will be talked about long after its limited production run ends. Because it will have only limited airing in a few of Europe and America’s cultural capitals, the Bay Area being one, and at the Cultural Olympiad during the 2012 Olympics in London, there is talk of adapting it into an African movie in Mali. It also cries out for wide circulation via DVD. Meanwhile, those with the means to afford its $100 ticket price would be wise to seize every opportunity to attend.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.