Spellbinding Desdemona

Last night, I watched the Los Angeles premiere of Desdemona at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. It was absolutely captivating.

I wanted to see the show because 1) it was written by Toni Morrison and 2) it is from the point of view of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. While I obviously expected it to be good, I was in for so much more of a surprise.

The stage was pretty bare, set only with hanging light bulbs, some musical instruments on the side, microphones, and chairs. The players’ simple white costumes matched the bareness of the stage and immediately brought to my mind a Greek tragedy or a Greek chorus. When Desdemona, played by Tina Benko, began to speak, her dulcet voice, along with her wonderful enunciation, drew me into the story. Soon after, she turns to her nursemaid, Barbary, to sing a song. Played by award-winning Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré, Barbary sings (while playing the guitar) in Bambara, a Malian language, while English lyrics are projected on a screen. Accompanied by two backup singers and two musicians playing traditional West African instruments, Barbary’s songs tells as much of the story as Desdemona’s narrative. And this explains why Traoré shares the writing credit for this play/concert with Morrison,

Excerpts from the play/concert from the Napoli Teatro Festival Italia (one of the backup singers and one of the musicians are different from the UCLA production)

While telling Desdemona’s story, Benko plays all the other characters–from her father and mother to Othello and Othello’s mother. And she does so skillfully, with the obvious change in the voices but also in the nuanced body movements. From the 4th row, I could clearly see her facial expressions and body language. Traoré’s voice and music are just as compelling. Even when I closed my eyes and couldn’t see the lyrics, I could still feel the emotions coming through in her singing.

The story, as expected, moves Desdemona from a tragic victim and gives her more agency over her own story. In doing so, it puts a spotlight on gender roles and expectations. More unexpectedly,the play also focuses on race. While it is not surprising that race would come up due to Othello’s Moorish background, the zinger actually has more to do with Barbary’s central role in the play. (I won’t say it here because it really is such a poignant moment.)

In short, I absolutely loved this play/concert. The bareness of the set and the costumes freed us to focus on the storytelling and the music. And I was simply entranced. I felt transported to a pre-modern time, as if sitting around a campfire, listening to an ancient story. In this age, where plays can be full of technical wizardry and statement costumes, it was so very refreshing, even mind-blowing, to have such an intimate, sacred feel. Of course, the biggest part of that is the story and the players — without the right, powerful words and mellifluous music or the corresponding performers, this would not be the same at all. But by going in this stark direction, director (and UCLA professor) Peter Sellars certainly set the tone for how the audience could best experience the story. I just feel so privileged to have seen this play that it made me want to write this review. If you have the chance, I urge you to go out and see it!

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