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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

‘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.



“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

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