Othello in Adaptation: Toni Morrison’s Desdemona

Othello in Adaptation

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello continues to exist today in adaptation. Here, we are going to explore in-depth one particular adaptation of Othello: Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. We will review: short biographies of the artists who created the play, context/reception, characters + staging, and synopsis, themes + things to note, and questions.


The Artists:

Toni Morrison:

  • American novelist , cultural criticist, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton
  • Novels you might know:
    • Sula (1973)
    • Song of Solomon (1977)
    • Beloved (1987)
  • Wrote Desdemona
  • Prize Winner: Pulitzer Prize for Beloved; Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993; Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012

Rokia Traoré:

  • Malian singer, songwriter, and guitarist
  • Wrote the music for Desdemona
  • Albums (1997-2016)
    • Mouneissa
    • Wanita
    • Bowmboi
    • Tchamantche
    • Beautiful Africa
    • Ne So

Peter Sellars:

  • American theatre director
  • Directed first performances of Desdemona
  • Professor at UCLA
  • Has unique stagings of operas and plays
  • Directed performances of Desdemona

Context / Reception:

The story goes that Toni Morrison and Peter Sellars (who is an experimental theater director) got into an argument about Othello – Sellars said it had outlived its usefulness and Morrison said he was wrong.  So, Sellars staged Othello and Morrison said she would find a way “to talk back to Shakespeare”.

Thus, we got Desdemona – it was first produced in Vienna in May 2011 and the script was published a year later.

The reception of performances of the play were largely positive:

The Guardian: “remarkable, challenging, and bravely original work”

LA Times: Morrison approached Othello with a “different level of political awareness”

Shakespeare Bulletin: “Morrison’s liberties with Shakespeare’s play felt like exactly that – voices long oppressed and silenced were set free. She convinced us…that we were learning something new about both Shakespeare’s play and the fragility of the modern globalized world, and that these stories existed all along and continue to matter, and matter in new ways”


Characters + Staging:

Characters:

  • Desdemona
  • Barbary
  • Other Characters played by Desdemona, ensemble, or audio recorded
    • Othello
    • Soun
    • M. Brabantio
    • Emilia

Staging:

  • Main focus on Desdemona and Barbary (Desdemona was played by either Elizabeth Marvel or Tina Benko and Barbary was played by Rokia Traore)
  • 3 background female vocalists, and 2  male drummer / lute players
  • Barefeet, white outfits, minimalist set design; main focus on music and words; interesting lighting

Video of section of the play in performance:


Synopsis:

  • The play opens with Desdemona in some kind of afterlife; she tells her backstory which was previously unknown including moments with her maid called Barbary
  • She reenacts/ reenvisions moments between her and Othello
  • We get a scene with the mothers of Othello and Desdemona
  • We then get Othello’s backstory as well as Barbary/Sa’ran’s
  • Overall, scenes from the “afterlife” interweaving and characters telling their stories


Themes + Things to Note:

  • Women in Shakespeare
  • Representation / Voice
  • Race
  • Death/Afterlife
  • Note: this play deals with difficult topics including rape
  • Note: some of the songs are not in English (Some are in Bambara), but our text is giving us the English translations
  • Note: type of theater


Questions:

Why do you think Morrison decided to focus on Desdemona and Barbary?

Why does she adapt Othello? (Or, perhaps this is just “inspired by” – think about this either way.)

Who’s voices are we hearing?

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