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Oppressed voices ring out in Morrison’s ‘Othello’

PARIS (AP) ― She’s but a throwaway mention in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” a one-line reference buried in Act IV of the dense and dark tale of passion and betrayal.

But Barbary ― the African nurse who raised Othello’s ill-fated wife Desdemona ― is at the very center, the beating heart, of Toni Morrison’s bold re-imagining of the tragedy.

With “Desdemona,” a play that opened earlier this week at the Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers in a Paris suburb before traveling to San Francisco and New York, the Nobel laureate probes the hidden suffering and obscured oppression woven into Shakespeare’s tale.

Directed by California-born Peter Sellars, “Desdemona” is a dialogue between the title character and Barbary, played by striking Malian musician Rokia Traore, who sings her responses in her native Bambara language.

Dressed in identical white linen dresses, the two women move around in bare feet over a stage strewn with clusters of empty glass jars and bottles and microphones. Their movements are spare, as what matters in this gripping, hypnotic play are the voices ― women’s voices.

The project was born out of a conversation between Morrison and Sellars a decade ago.

“I said there’s this really bad play by Shakespeare called ‘Othello.’ It makes no sense, it’s just a disaster, and it’s way past its use-by date, like yoghurt that’s been on the shelves that you should not feed your children,” Sellars told The Associated Press in an interview. “Toni then spent the next four hours telling me how wrong I was.”

The disagreement between these two creative giants spawned a double-dare of sorts: Sellars would stage Othello ― he says his 2009 production was “hugely trashed in America, hugely celebrated in Europe”― while Morrison would “write a response to Shakespeare.”

Morrison leapt to international fame and was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature for bringing into the light lives that had so long lingered in the shadows, so it was little surprise that she chose to put such strong focus on Barbary.

“For Shakespeare, the ideal woman is silent. The women characters he admires the most are the ones who say the least. ... Of course, Toni has a different opinion,” said Sellars, with a belly laugh that shook his trademark gravity-defying shock of finger-in-the-socket hair.

Morrison’s Desdemona doesn’t just talk: Speaking from beyond the grave, she rants, she whispers, she rails, she cries, she cajoles, she mesmerizes and bewitches.

This daughter of a powerful Venetian senator and a noblewoman tells of her melancholic childhood in which “constraint was the theme of behavior (and) duty was its plot;” of her father’s efforts to marry her off and deliver her “profitably and securely into the hands of another man;” her love affair with Othello, the Moor, who seduces her with his tales of adventures in wind-swept lands, of enslavement, of shipwrecks and of blood-soaked battles.

Desdemona weeps as she recounts her relationship with Barbary, the “sole consolation” of her loveless, circumscribed childhood.
U.S. actress Tina Benko performs in “Desdemona,” directed by American director Peter Sellars, at the Amandier theater in Nanterre, outside Paris, on Oct. 11. (AP-Yonhap News)
U.S. actress Tina Benko performs in “Desdemona,” directed by American director Peter Sellars, at the Amandier theater in Nanterre, outside Paris, on Oct. 11. (AP-Yonhap News)

Barbary’s “heart, so wide, seemed to hold the entire world in awe and to savor its every delight,” says Desdemona, played brilliantly by American actress Tina Benko. “I loved her.”

But “when I needed her most, she stumbled under the spell of her lover” and died of a broken heart.

Filled with stories within stories, “Desdemona” feels like a kind of Russian stacking doll of disenfranchisement. Desdemona recounts the anguish of being a woman within a punishing patriarchy and also gives voice to Othello’s own alienation as a dark-skinned foreigner. But it’s Barbary’s pain that’s at the bloody core of the piece.

The most haunting moment in the play comes when Desdemona sees her nurse again through the fogs of the afterlife.

“Barbary! Barbary, come closer. How I have missed you.... You were my best friend,” Desdemona exclaims.

“I was your slave,” Barbary slices back.

“You don’t even know my name” ― Sa’ran. (In 15th century British parlance Barbary was taken to mean Africa, in all its unknown vastness.)

Traore’s Barbary sings of sadness, the warm timbres and melancholic melodies of her powerful voice set off by two traditional Malian string instruments ― including the kora, made from an oversized gourd.

Traore’s stage presence is magnetic. A slip of a woman with sculpted shoulders, a shaved head and feline features, she holds herself with such straight-backed dignity it’s all you can do to peel your eyes off her throughout the 2-hour-long performance.

Morrison and Traore worked together to write the piece, Sellars said.

“We got a collaboration that was only possible in the 21st century, with Toni writing in New York, Rokia in Bamako reading what Toni’d written and responding in Bambara with songs she put on an MP3 download and sent to Toni, who’s inspired and stunned by Rokia’s way of restating things,” said Sellars.

“This dialogue between an African-American woman and an African woman finally made Africa a reality in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello,’” he said, adding, “Now you feel that you can never read Shakespeare in the same way again.”

“Desdemona” plays at the Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers through Oct. 21. It travels to San Francisco, for four performances between Oct. 26-29, then to New York, for two performances on Nov 2-3, and finally on to Berlin.