‘Desdemona’ presents stimulating modern interpretation of classical drama

Carli Baker/Staff

“We will be judged by how well we love.” This line, spoken by the title character in Toni Morrison’s “Desdemona,” easily sums up the production’s perspective on humanity: We will not be judged by how successful we are, nor by how many friends we have, not even by how many good deeds we do. This could not be more true in Morrison’s portrayal of the afterlife. In the wake of her death, Desdemona enters an unforgiving dimension where judgment is only bestowed upon the dead by the dead. Through dialogue with her loved ones, she embarks on a philosophical journey that explores the flaws in human perception. This journey was brought to life at Zellerbach Playhouse on Thursday night by the show’s stunning marriage of theater and live music.

This weekend’s showings, put on by Cal Performances, marked the North American debut of “Desdemona.” The still very young production is a collaboration between Morrison and director Peter Sellars to endow Shakespeare’s “Othello” with a female perspective. They offer that perspective in the form of a sequel, following Othello’s wife Desdemona into the afterlife. By expanding upon the nature of her relationships with Othello and her African maid Barbary, “Desdemona” introduces notions of gender and class struggle that Shakespeare had essentially overlooked, giving his work new significance. Though its more introspective, poetic structure could have translated well into a novel, the production’s musical and theatrical aspects gives Morrison’s literature a more powerful impact.

Aside from Desdemona, Barbary is the only other character embodied on stage — making “Desdemona” something of a two-woman show. They are only accompanied by a pair of musicians and a trio of backup singers. Desdemona, portrayed by the passionate Tina Benko, takes on a multitude of voices to act out the other characters herself. Barbary, played by Rokia Traore, doubles as the band’s guitarist and lead vocalist, expressing herself almost entirely through song. Also the composer and director of music for “Desdemona,” Traore recites her own lyrics in the Malian language of Bamanankan, with English subtitles projected behind her.

This dichotomy between the two women extends beyond their languages and mediums of expression, as they demonstrate very different opinions regarding love, life and even their own relationship. Such inconsistencies in perception are frequent throughout the play, preventing the characters from understanding and, thus, accurately judging how well they love one another. It is in the afterlife, when they have nothing better to do than to peacefully discuss their feelings, that their misunderstandings are cleared up — too little, too late. Here, Morrison and Traore remind their audience of the dire importance of nonviolent communication and expression.

Thursday night’s performance of “Desdemona” had no elaborate scenery or costumes, no awe-inspiring special effects. The women took the stage in plain, white dresses and presided over a series of Malian grave sites; the only thing that changed throughout the night was their positioning on the stage. Benko’s captivating presence and Traore’s beautiful African string composition needed no accompaniment. They enlivened Morrison’s dense script with ease and commanded the attention of every single audience member.

“Desdemona” should not be approached as a play, but rather a piece of performance art. Anyone expecting an action-packed show will be woefully disappointed, not because it lacks drama but because because its drama is so subtle. Every gaze into the audience, every trembling phrase, every plucking of a string is intensified and emotionally-charged; overlook these small details and you’ll miss out on the theatrical component. The production’s beauty lies in its simplistic approach, demonstrating how powerful the raw interplay between spoken word and musical performance can be.