Theatre Rokia Traore and Toni Morrison bring girl power to Othello
A radical reimagining of Othello puts women at the forefront of the drama, writes Jane Cornwell
‘Shakespeare was a futurist,” says Malian singer Rokia Traore, sitting in an up-market hotel overlooking the sea in Marseille, southern France. “To take a black man and make him a main character was very courageous. But this play, Othello, shows us how little was known about Africa in Shakespeare’s England.”
She pauses, her gaze steady. “There was a sense of a continent, I think, but not much understanding that it was populated by human beings with different ways of thinking and being, who were just as intelligent as any other humans.
“So we’re redressing the balance: giving a history and background to Othello. Telling the story of the play’s female characters.”
Traore, 40, is talking about Desdemona, a concert cum multimedia event created by Nobel prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison and experimental theatre and opera director Peter Sellars: a work that has toured Europe and the US in short runs since its premiere in Vienna in 2011, and will grace the Melbourne and Sydney festivals next month.
American actress Tina Benko will resume the role of the Bard’s doomed heroine, speaking from beyond the grave in a conversation with her nurse, Barbary, played by Traore, switching voices to channel other (dead) characters including Othello — and their mothers.
“Toni gives words to those who were not allowed to speak,” says the Brussels-based Traore, who is holidaying in France with her partner and two young children before leaving for a stint in the Malian capital, Bamako. “And what words! Her language is so poetic and powerful. Working with Toni is a great privilege. The fact that I can send her an email, which she then answers, still amazes me.”
Now 84, and recently namechecked as one of a select group of people advising Barack Obama on a post-White House career, Morrison began their transatlantic collaboration by emailing Traore from New York with chunks of narra- tive. Lines such as: ‘‘Barbary alone conspired with me to let my imagination run free / She told me stories of other lives, other countries…’’ To which Traore replied with songs written in her native Bambara, and derived in part from the Epic of Sundiata, the foundation poem of the Mali empire.
“This poem is a big part of my people’s story,” says Traore of the 13th-century epic passed down orally by West Africa’s griot caste of his- torians, musicians and praise singers. “I also refer to Samori Toure, who fought against French colonisation in West Africa [and was the leading African opponent of 19th-century European imperialism]. Like Othello, he was a warrior. These men lived for war. They didn’t know what to do apart from fight.”
Barbary, the maid who died for love, receives but a single mention in Shakespeare’s play (sometimes as ‘‘Barbara’’). But since Barbary was the ancient name for the coast of North Africa, Morrison boldly concludes that the character was from (sub-Saharan) Africa. The roaming imagination of the writer behind such novels as
Beloved and Song of Solomon has Desdemona learning African songs and stories as a child, so shaping her subsequent attraction to Othello, the Moor for whom she left her home.
Willowy and crop-haired, Traore provides most of the music, bringing her character to life — to afterlife — while strumming an acoustic guitar, or standing behind a microphone, flanked by a pair of musicians on the n’goni lute and harp-like kora, and two female singers from her Fondation Passerelle. There is no dance music, no thundering djembe drums or other African stereotypes. The music is meditative, trance-like. Everyone on the ghostly, bulb-lit stage is dressed in white.
The work has moved on since this writer saw it performed, to mixed reviews, at London’s Barbican Theatre in 2012. Which, given that it is helmed by Sellars — an eccentric American visionary who in 2001 controversially quit his post as director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival — is inevitable.
CULTURE IS ABOUT LETTING PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD
“Toni hasn’t changed a word,” says Traore of Morrison’s text, which is projected on to a screen, surtitles-style, during each performance. “But Peter makes adjustments according to each stage and actress.
“I’ll be making some changes in time for Australia,” she adds with a smile. “Now is the right time to think about all the things I’ve noticed since we started.
“With every project I do, I am never totally satisfied. There are always several levels: there’s what you imagine, and then there’s what you get. But often once you start working on something, you realise it can go much further.”
The daughter of a jazz-loving diplomat who moved his family from Mali to the Middle East, North Africa and Belgium, Traore, a sociology graduate, has never been a traditionalist. The title track from her acclaimed 2013 album
Beautiful Africa (recorded with PJ Harvey’s producer John Parish) sees her strapping an electric Gretsch guitar to rock out and sing of the chaos in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, of her belief in wisdom and peace: ‘‘In my Afro-progressive veins burns Bambara blood infused with hope,’’ she cries in her sweet, powerful voice.
Having reinforced her reputation as an artistic intellectual over the course of five albums, collaborations with the left-field likes of the Kronos Quartet, participation in a raft of projects supporting women and, unusually for a singer, membership of this year’s Cannes film festival jury, it’s easy to see why Traore was sought out by Sellars. Her pan-Africanism and forward thinking dovetails with that of Morrison, whose work respects the missing histories of generations. Sellars has gone so far as to say the piece could not exist without Traore — praised by Los Angeles Times for her ‘‘eloquent songs and entrancing voice’’.
“Desdemona is very demanding to perform,” Traore says. “The thing is, Peter must be available and I must be available. He likes to be involved, as I do. I don’t want to train anyone else. And besides, I love Australia,” she adds with a smile. “I’ve been there four times already with my own projects, so this is my fifth visit.”
The themes thrown up by this radical rereading of Othello fascinate her, she says. The power of love. The traumas of war. Class and gender. Race and racism.
“[Cameroonian theorist and political scientist] Achille Mbembe has suggested that humans have a deep-seated need to feel superior to one another. Centuries ago, this was directly connected to skin colour. More recently it has become about social situation, whether you’re rich or poor, gay or straight. It’s as if we have this drive to make a classification. Of course, too often black is still seen as inferior.
“The idea of Africa for most Westerners is this continent where, you know, they’re all so nice, and the nature is so beautiful, but they have so much to learn. This is how it was when we had first contact with slavery, then with colonisation. And the idea is still there.”
That steady gaze. “Which is why I think for black people, being well dressed, having their hair done just so, is very important. We have to appear very clearly normal, so as not to leave any possibility for weakness.”
Arts and culture will transform Mali, she says, not foreign aid: “The rest of the world has been giving us food and medicine since independence [from France, in 1960], and nothing has happened. Everything is getting worse. We need to try other things.”
To this end, Traore has established the Fondation Passerelle (the footbridge foundation), a Bamako-based school that trains young musicians outside the griot system, encouraging them to pursue professional careers. Despite the global success of Malian musicians such as Toumani Diabate and Amadou & Mariam, Mali doesn’t have an infrastructure that supports local artists. Or rather, what music industry it had has been destroyed in the wake of the 2012 military coup in Bamako, which triggered a Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north. Uneasy peace in Mali and across the Sahel region has rejigged the government’s priorities.
“We must get arts and music back on my country’s political agenda,” says Traore, whose projects have helped to fund the building of Passerelle’s office, performance space and recording studio. “We can’t keep treating people like nothing, and they accept and accept. Culture is about education. It’s about letting people know about the rest of the world, about what they can be. It’s to do with knowing their own merit.”
Traore, who was stuck in Bamako during the coup (“For two weeks they did nothing”), is looking forward to getting back to Mali, where she has a house near Bamako airport. Having toured the world several times, she’s winding down her international schedule: “I will still work abroad but not as much as in the past; I’m 40 now, with children who need me.” There will, of course, be a flurry of promotion when her new album is released in a few months, featuring a song co-written with Morrison.
“I wrote the song lyrics but since English is not my first language, not like French or Bambara, I said, ‘Toni, I need your help.’ She answered me two days later with her Anglicised version.” A smile. “She totally transformed it!” And the song’s theme? “Respect,” she says. “There are so many things happening now that are related to the fact we have forgotten what respect is: to ourselves, to others, to the world.” She sits up even straighter. “A little respect,” she says. “That needs to be part of the future, too.”
Desdemona is at the Melbourne Festival from October 16 to 19 and the Sydney Festival from October 23 to 25.
Malian singer and musician Rokia Traore, left, plays Barbary in Desdemona; the multimedia event was created by American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, below
Traore with Tina Benko and other performers on stage in Desdemona, left; Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob take a more traditional approach to Shakespeare’s classic in the 1995 film of Othello, above; Peter Sellars, below left