Theater Review: Desdemona at UCLA

Last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Desdemona at UCLA. Written under commission at the beginning of this decade, the performance piece is a new look at Othello’s doomed wife.

Desdemona, by Toni Morrison, lyrics by Rokia Traore (seated), featuring Tina Benko (kneeling)

The staging belongs to Peter Sellars, the famed theatrical director. Picture a relatively empty stage. Mostly dark, painted black. The performers wear simple white garb; nothing fancy, nothing to take away from the performances. Two male musicians sit to stage right, with African musical instruments within reach. Two female background singers stand upstage and obscured by the two leads–two women, one African, the other white. A couple of chairs, a few standing microphones, dozens of bottles and candles lit and lighting the floor. A huge backdrop onto which English supertitles are projected.

English supertitles?

Most are aware that Desdemona was written by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize awardee Toni Morrison. Sellars and Morrison are the big guns, the names that put seats into the seats as it were. But Morrison had a verbal collaborator. Rokia Traore, an influential musician from the West African country of Mali. While the spoken text is from Morrison’s mind, the music and lyrics, all in a Malian dialect, are Traore’s contribution. According to the production’s program, Morrison would write some text, then correspond with Traore via email, and Traore would write songs that deepen the audience’s understanding, especially as it pertains to the African perspective of the story. It’s the lyrics of those songs that get the supertitles.

On stage, the African lead, referenced in the Shakespearean play as Barbary, the maid of Desdemona’s mother, is performed by the co-author herself. The other actress is Tina Benko, who plays (for the most part) Desdemona. I say “for the most part,” when I should probably say “most parts,” as she portrays not only Othello’s wife, but other characters from her recollection of life. Set in a kind of after-world, these two women remember their lives, loves, trials, tribulations, and ultimate downfalls.

Rokia Traoré, left, and Tina Benko. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Desdemona is a thoughtful piece with wonderful, beautiful music. Contemplative is the best word I can use to describe it. Morrison’s text is brilliant, though at times when Benko’s character is purely Desdemona, it can get a little didactic. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re at all interested in this character, then it’s a must-see. It’s just not a much-enjoy. And as I’m writing this, I’m realizing why I didn’t enjoy it (at least not as much as my wife Lisa and our [air-quotes] “daughter,” a PhD candidate in English at UCLA). The play is so thoughtful–bordering on academic–that it rarely touches the emotion of the audience (or maybe just this audience member).

Desdemona by Toni Morrison, lyrics by Rokia Treore [book cover]
Great? Undoubtedly. Enjoyable? Only intermittently. Fun? You’re barking up the wrong tree.

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