The combination of Toni Morrison and Rokia Traore on a project about Othello is a compelling one: Toni Morrison is inexorably Toni Morrison. Rokia Traore is the trilingual recording artist in the style of Ali Farka Toure.
The combination of the two brings us Desdemona, a short musical play that has been performed on and off through the years, and — in looking at the play as a text and text alone — I think the following lines stand out:
- “I exist in-between, now … I join / the underwater women; stroll with them / in dark light, listen to their music in the / spangled deep.”
- “Constraint was the theme of behavior. Duty was its plot.”
- Othello telling Desdemona that ‘If you know how to laugh you will not need lessons’ when it comes to love (both the concept and the act of making.)
- “There is an island surrounded by lavender.”
- “The self loathing … could only be quieted by the glint of honor an honorably army provided.”
- “Four liters of wine I consumed before the sun touched the top of heaven.”
- “But afterlife forbids a double death.”
There is the temptation to pursue a typically Borgesian doubling up here — i.e., to see if Morrison could — like Borges in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote — attempt the equivalent of re-writing Don Quixote, spirit of it and all — and we could offer that up as the reason why the play as a text seems to drift into a territory that is too light, not as emphatically delicious as Morrison-the-novelist is as capable of being or as explosively polyphonic as Traore’s music is as capable of being.
Because the combination of Rokia’s music and Morrison’s writing ought to produce an extraordinary effect before it even reaches the stage — it ought to do so while you’re reading the thing, pacing back and forth in the kitchen or settling into bed for the night. There ought to be a named, shared space where a ‘dókótórósó’ is realized as being ‘the house of a doctor,’ i.e., a hospital, or a musical reflection of N ba and NSe — or, as Phil Paoletta put it on his blog —
If you say good morning to a man, he will respond “N ba” — “my mother.” He is more or less saying thanks to my mother, I am here to receive your greeting. The female response is even better. Instead of N ba, females say “NSe” (like Nsay) — “my power.” The cultural translation: my power as a female always wins against time.
Which isn’t inconsistent with the play’s thetic intent either.
Still: for all the play’s shortcomings, the combination of Morrison and Traore is a fantastic one brimming with potential should the two ever wish to work together again. And Morrison’s past work as an editor is worth bringing into the frame here, too: she edited and introduced voice after important voice onto the American literary scene: Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, and — if I’m recalling correctly — she also worked with James Baldwin, too. (Which, come on.) Her sense of who she wants to work with is a fascinating one.
Whether or not that translates into a work that makes its way from flawless start to flawless finish is another matter entirely. Though I’m glad it’s out there.