[Me and Ayanna Thompson during the postshow talkback]
Toni Morrison (1931-) is the greatest American novelist of the last 100 years. Her 11 novels, spanning 11 different eras, constitute a loosely defined national epic, reflecting on the African-American experience by focusing on the figures often left out of history. In early works The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), Morrison repudiated the didactic novel of black uplift, presenting black lives as a mysterious and fantastic phenomenon, a culture as rich and contradictory as America itself. Song of Solomon (1977), a work as liturgical as it is historical, is more reminiscent of the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez or Haruki Murakami’s postmodernism. In her masterwork Beloved (1987), Morrison combines African oral tradition with classical tragedy to dramatize slavery’s ambiguous legacy. Often typecast as a “black writer” because of her ethnicity, Morrison is in fact one of our last great Modernists, a writer whose form is every bit as progressive as her content.
Born in 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to parents who came north during the Great Migration, Morrison (originally named Chloe Ardelia Wofford) was raised on ghost stories and tall tales. In a 1984 essay, Morrison lamented: “parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological, archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” After diagnosing the problem, Morrison offered a corrective in her own work. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and in 1993 became the first American Nobel laureate for literature since John Steinbeck in 1962. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Perhaps less well known is Morrison’s long-standing interest in Shakespeare. In 1955, Morrison wrote her Master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner, obvious influences. The subject, however, was chosen only after her advisor discouraged her initial proposal: the black characters in Shakespeare’s plays. More than 50 years later, Morrison became embroiled in a friendly debate with director Peter Sellars about Othello. Out of their conversations came Desdemona, a joint collaboration with Malian musician Rokia Traoré. It premiered in 2011 at the Vienna Festwochen, and has since toured the world with a live ensemble of African musicians. It is being presented here under special arrangement with Morrison and Traoré themselves.
Desdemona expands on a key absence in Shakespeare’s text: late in Act 4, at a pause in the action, we see Desdemona in her bedroom, the site of the famous murder. After Othello threatens her and leaves, Desdemona turns to Emilia and tells her about a song taught to her by her mother’s maid Barbary, who died singing it from a broken heart. She then sings the Willow Song. As Morrison’s reimagining argues, Shakespeare conceived of this surrogate mother for Desdemona, a storyteller from Africa much like Othello himself. Though he has us imagine this character, though, Shakespeare refuses to stage her before our eyes. Like many mothers and wives in Shakespeare’s plays, Barbary is a ghost.
In Desdemona, Morrison allows Desdemona and Barbary to testify to the things Shakespeare did not allow them to say. As in Morrison’s novels, Desdemona focuses on figures often relegated to the margins – the idealized and often silenced wives, mothers, and servants. The work invests the particular with the qualities of myth, and testifies to the power of storytelling to dramatize the richness and manifold complexity of the human experience.