Our “jolly good fellows”

As the start of the new season draws closer, we’re giving you a sneak peek into some of the delights of the 2016-2017 spread. The CAP UCLA Fellows Program is dedicated to celebrating masters of their craft through multi-year presentation commitments. We hope you join us in our celebration!

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Anne Bogart & SITI Company

New York-based SITI Company, co-founded by acclaimed American theater and opera director Anne Bogart with Leon Ingulsrud and Ellen Lauren is known worldwide as a constantly evolving collective of artists whose collaborative spirit results in the creation of new theater that straddles performing arts disciplines and challenges norms. The Center will work closely with Anne Bogart and other members of the company to explore projects, educational programs and performances unique to our campus and immediate community.

In this 2016-2017 season we are delighted to team up with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to present Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars featuring SITI Company, with direction from Anne Bogart and musical direction from Jeffrey Kahane. An adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, this 1949 Broadway musical was the last score Kurt Weill wrote for the stage before his passing.

In the 2015-2016 season we presented Steel Hammer, a collaboration among SITI Company, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe and esteemed music collective Bang on A Can All-Stars. SITI Company thrilled CAP UCLA audiences in the 2014-2015 season with their adventurous collaboration with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the dance-theater work A Rite, inspired by Stravinsky’s iconic Rite of Spring.

Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson is among the most important visual and theater artists in the world. His work uses different artistic techniques integrating movement, dance, painting, light, design, sculpture, music and drama.

In our 2016-2017 season, we will feature a Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson collaboration—their second for CAP UCLA. Letter to a Man is based on autobiographical texts by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), one of the most celebrated dancers and choreographers of his time who danced in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and created seminal choreographies himself. His diaries, written in less than six weeks in 1919, document the young man’s descent into madness. They were first published in 1936.

We presented another collaboration of Wilson and Baryshnikov in the 2014-2015 season. Developed with, and starring, the legendary Baryshnikov, and co-starring Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe, The Old Woman is an adaptation of the eponymous work by recently rediscovered Russian avant-garde author Daniil Kharms. A brilliant, obscure and slyly political novella from the 1930s, The Old Woman loosely follows the story of a struggling writer who cannot find peace with himself.

In our 2013-2014 season, we featured a solo act from Wilson. As an homage to revolutionary composer John Cage, Robert Wilson performed Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, one of the central texts of twentieth-century experimental literature. The production has been described as being an “acoustically and visually inspiring approach to the philosophical and poetic text” which Cage based on a complex time length scheme similar to some of his music.

Kronos Quartet

Through our Artist Fellow initiative, we celebrate Kronos Quartet as one of the most influential contemporary ensembles of our time and a driving force in the performing arts. For 40 years, the Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet has redefined the string quartet experience through thousands of concerts, more than 50 recordings, collaborations with composers and performers from around the globe, and more than 800 commissioned works.

CAP UCLA is delighted to present a new multimedia work featuring the Kronos Quartet for the 2016-2017 season entitled Beyond Zero, which commemorates the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War.  Dubbed “the war to end all wars” World War I ushered in a century of conflict that continues into this millennium. Kronos Quartet will perform compositions by influential composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, and in conjunction with films and archival footage from filmmaker Bill Morrison.

The Beyond Zero event will feature performances of works co-commissioned by CAP UCLA for the Kronos Quartet/Kronos Performing Arts Association initiative Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire.

Beginning in the 2015-2016 season, Fifty for the Future commissioned 50 new works – 10 per year for five years – devoted to contemporary approaches to the quartet and designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals. The works are being created by an eclectic group of composers – 25 men and 25 women. Kronos will premiere each piece and create companion digital materials, including scores, recordings, and performance notes, which will be distributed online for free. Fifty for the Future will present string quartet music as a living art form.

In the 2013-2014 season, CAP UCLA celebrated the longevity and far-reaching influence of Kronos Quartet in a double-performance presentation, which included a special 40th Anniversary concert and the Los Angeles debut of Kronos’ first-ever collaboration with CAP UCLA Fellow Laurie Anderson.

CAP UCLA Fellows program is supported in part by the generous support of Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy.

Welcome to our 2016-17 Season Edition

The event detail pages on our site and in the season program guide offer you a running glance at the tremendous artistry that will again take root in Los Angeles over the months ahead. As you have come to expect, there is much to discover and taking part is fortifying. As the Director of both CAP UCLA (produced programs) and of Royce Hall (heritage venue of repute), it is a true pleasure to unveil this collection of recent work by such distinct voices in contemporary performance.

Though I occupy the leadership seat, what happens here is due to the staff that I have the pleasure of collectively rolling up sleeves with every day. We are conjoined with our Board members – a philanthropic body of individuals that give (and then give some more) – to ensure that this feast of ideas will continue to happen each season. We also work in partnership with esteemed local and national foundations, art patrons, scholars and numerous colleague organizations. In doing so, we play a dynamic role in the arts internationally, while serving UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community.

We spend a lot of time thinking about YOU – the audiences who are passionate about engaging with what is going on in contemporary performance. (Your response and participation is accompanied with great anticipation on our end.)

CAP UCLA programs – on and off stage – are created to strengthen the ties that bind us to continuing artistic achievement. We make every effort to engage you by adding opportunities before or after the performances and we cluster these under the banner of “Art in Action.” For those of you who seek a creative dialogue, more insight, or to actively learn what makes these artists tick or what inspired the work in the first place – I encourage you to choose your dates when Art in Action is in full swing. Every single work of art on this season, whether danced, projected, played, acted, conducted or spoken reveals a sublime global effort toward the art of much-needed perspective. We look forward to seeing you again this season!

Kristy Edmunds
Executive and Artistic Director
Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA

Below are some of the upcoming highlights. Head over to our calendar or check out the Season Program Guide for a full overview of the 2016-17 Season.

8 Reasons You Need to See Taylor Mac This Weekend

Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The 20th Century Abridged is coming to Royce Hall this Saturday, March 12th at 8PM. If you haven’t already gotten your tickets (which start at $19), here are 8 reasons to do so:

1. Taylor Mac will be costumed for the gods.

Taylor Mac says that drag is wearing on the outside what you are on the inside. Judging by his outlandish costumes, that makes Mac’s insides pretty fabulous. You’ll see some wild and wonderful costumes, created by designer, collaborator, and costuming genius Machine Dazzle. You can read more about their partnership in this interview from Mac’s appearance in Santa Barbara this week. As drag legend RuPaul would say: it’s going to be an eleganza extravaganza.

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2. You can turn the party before and after the show!

Our annual MOVEMENT party this year is “Identity in Motion.” Show up early and stay late with us on the Royce Terrace. There will be make-up and makeup artists from Smashbox Cosmetics, a Drag Pop-Up station, music from DJ Manifesto, a photo booth, a runway, and more. Party on, Wayne!

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3. No matter your age, you’ll know the songs.

It sucks when you go to a concert, but you can only sing along to that one song that plays on the radio. Not a problem here! Taylor Mac will be taking us on a ride through the 20th Century, so get ready to hear songs you know in a way you’ve never heard them before.

Here’s Taylor Mac’s take on LMFAO’s 2011 hit “Sexy and I Know It”

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4. The local talent is going to slay.

Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles®, the first all-female Mariachi band in America, are the special guests at this event. There will also be appearances from numerous local burlesque artists, in performances choreographed by the sensational Peekaboo Pointe.

Here’s Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles with their version of  the classic “Crazy for Loving You.”

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5. You’ll know what his reviews are talking about.

Taylor Mac makes a splash wherever he goes, and the press is catching on. Frontiers has the low-down on his upcoming appearance in LA, The New York Times spilled the beans on a sensational play he wrote recently entitled Hir, and New York Magazine named him as one of the reasons New York theater is thriving.

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6. You’ll look really hip.

We all have one friend who seems to have the low-down on an awesome night out. Be that friend this Saturday. “Oh, Taylor Mac?” you’ll say. “He’s just this radical gender-bending playwright/drag artist/cabaret performer who’s going to deconstruct the music of the 20th Century. He’s all over New York right now. You probably haven’t heard of him.” Your Atwater Village friends will be green with envy.

7. March Madness hasn’t started yet.

The brackets get announced the next day, so don’t even trip like that’s an excuse. Peel yourself out of your lay-z-boy for a night, and come watch a different kind of spectacle. We promise: there’ll be plenty of sweat and cheering here too.

8. One City, One Pride!

The build up to this show has been so special to us. Partnering with WeHo Arts/One City One Pride, Los Angeles LGBT Center, and ONE Archives, we celebrated Drag Angeles at the West Hollywood Library last week. Now it’s our turn to host the party so come show the city your love—and your Pride!

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Taylor Mac: Identity in Motion

Identity. I am. You are.

We search for likeness, we examine for difference. We make assumptions.  The outward markers of identity, specifically gender (although there are others), lead us to expect certain things.  On the playground, in the classroom, at home, in the workplace. These expectations both subtle and obvious, are everywhere.  How girls are supposed to act. How boys are supposed to act.  This past weekend, in collaboration with our partners WeHo Arts/One City One Pride, Los Angeles LGBT Center, and ONE Archives, we celebrated Drag Angeles at the West Hollywood Library.  It was a joyful  cornucopia of identity in motion.  Big Hair. Big Heels. Big Hearts.

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Earlier this year, the Center had a conversation with the writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, who many years ago wrote a groundbreaking novel about the fluidity of gender.  She imagined a society where gender was not fixed but malleable—organically fluid. The book was considered science fiction, and in the early 1960’s when it was written, it was inconceivable that it could have been anything else.

Taylor Mac, who brings his ambitious new production to the Center this weekend,  explores the fluidity of gender in ways that are pointedly intentional, impish, and outrageous.  In Taylor’s world, the message is delivered by a man/woman bedecked and bejeweled, feathered and fantastic.  Taylor’s identity is in constant motion, and it is a wild ride.  He demands that we look at him.  And we do—we cannot look anywhere else.    tm1He is both a reflection of us and a vision of what we might be.  He unsettles our basic assumptions.  He affirms our hidden inclinations.  Drawing from traditions of musical theater, vaudeville, music hall and drag, he becomes our partner in delicious subversion.  Disruption is de rigeur.

For many in my generation, an encounter with delicious gender disruption arrived in the form of a cheaply made, campy movie about a sweet transvestite from Transylvania.  It’s not a coincidence that this was also pegged as science fiction.  I remember my first encounter with this experience, I was very young and it unsettled all of my assumptions—so much so that I saw it once a week, every week, for eight weeks, during one hot, hot, humid summer.  The movie and the play it is based on, has its roots in the same traditions that Taylor explores.  The messenger is in heels and glitter, the hero is also the heroine, two sides of the same coin, one and both, joyfully disrupting our assumptions.  They each dare to ask, why not.  

To quote the one from Transylvania: Don’t just dream it. Be it.

Don’t miss Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music this Sat, Mar 12 at Royce Hall.

Building Community with CONTRA-TIEMPO

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In a few weeks, LA’s own CONTRA-TIEMPO will premiere their newest work, Agua Furiosa.   It will be the first time they’ve appeared on the CAP season, but it’s far from our first partnership. Since 2008, the company has been an important part of the Education programs here at the Center.  From capacity crowds at our Demonstration Performances to long-term classroom residencies, they’ve helped us fulfill our mission of making the arts accessible and inspirational for young people across our city.

With CONTRA-TIEMPO, Students learn how to work together, as dancers and as classmates
With CONTRA-TIEMPO, students learn how to work together, as dancers and as classmates.

In our ongoing work with CONTRA TIEMPO we strive to give students an opportunity to not only observe a performance as audience members, but also respond to what they’ve experienced, and become active participants in the creative process.  This idea was at the heart of Design for Sharing’s Residency program which launched in 2009.  Working closely with the faculty of the about-to-open UCLA Community School, and Ana Maria Alvarez, CONTRA-TIEMPO’s dynamic Artistic Director, we developed a year-long series of in-class dance, movement, theater, creative writing and visual arts activities led by teaching artists from CONTRA-TIEMPO and Design for Sharing.

For the next five years, hundreds of 4th, 5th and 6th graders explored big ideas of community and identity, resistance and engagement with us.  How do you get a 10-year-old to tackle these huge concepts? With kindness, enthusiasm, high expectations and mutual respect.  Ana Maria and the teaching artists of CONTRA-TIEMPO are an irresistable force, drawing even the shyest kids in, and creating the space for students to share their thoughts and make themselves heard, vocally and physically.

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The foundation of this group work is the salsa rueda, a form of salsa danced in a circle with a leader calling out the steps.   The dance seems simple on the surface—the movements aren’t complicated, the caller keeps everyone on track—but a successful rueda demands that the participants, both individually and communally, choose to be fully present with their best selves. It’s a challenge that year after year, classroom after classroom, the students rise to meet.

Ana Maria also challenges students in DFS Performance Workshops, small-group activities that are part open rehearsal, part movement class, part discussion. For the high school students that participate, these programs offer a window into the process of creating art and an opportunity to respond directly to what they’ve just seen. For Ana Maria and the dancers, they offer a fresh perspective and re-energize the creative process.   It’s quite a thing to witness a room full of anxious, self-conscious teenagers being asked to think abstractly, express themselves honestly, and creating a community where everyone feels safe enough to do so.

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CONTRA-TIEMPO is dedicated to transforming the world through dance, to the growth and development of more self reflective and engaged young artists. We’ve seen first-hand how successful they are at achieving that mission.

Come see them in action in Kaufman Hall, and experience their unique kind of alchemy, turning strangers into a community, no matter how old, or how young.

You can join us in welcoming CONTRA-TIEMPO back to the Center in a new capacity. Get your tickets for Agua Furiosa here.

Center receives NEA grant

In its first 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded more than $5 billion in grants to recipients in every state and U.S. jurisdiction, the only arts funder in the nation to do so. Today, the NEA announced awards totaling more than $27.6 million in its first funding round of fiscal year 2016, including an Art Works award of $20,000 to Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA to present Phantom Limb’s Memory Rings.

The Art Works category supports the creation of work and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu said, “The arts are part of our everyday lives – no matter who you are or where you live – they have the power to transform individuals, spark economic vibrancy in communities, and transcend the boundaries across diverse sectors of society. Supporting projects like the one from CAP UCLA offers more opportunities to engage in the arts every day.”

Memory Rings is a multi-disciplinary theatrical presentation that tackles nearly 5,000 years of human and environmental change from the perspective of the Methuselah tree, the world’s oldest known living tree. This performance is a part of a greater trilogy that examines ecological and environmental threads of narrative and research. Defying categorization, the ensemble uses dance, puppetry, mask, installation, music, projections, and costume to transport the audience.  Phantom Limb is known for its work with marionette-puppetry and focus on collaborative, multi-media theatrical production and design. Co-founded in 2007 by installation artist, painter and set designer Jessica Grindstaff and composer and puppet maker Erik Sanko, Phantom Limb has been lauded for its unconventional approach to this venerable format.

To join the Twitter conversation about this announcement, please use #NEAFall15. For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, go to arts.gov

Who’s Afraid Of The STRAIGHT WHITE MEN?

LA has a theater problem. That should come as no surprise: LA is primarily a music and visual arts city, and it’s hard to compete with the plethora of beautiful museums and concert halls scattered across the map. Anthony Byrnes goes into greater detail about LA’s theater problem in his article for KCRW, but also into possible solutions. He highlights our recent co-presentation of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company as an example of reaching across the void to connect the city’s theaters. We are co-presenting Lee’s play Straight White Men in collaboration with Center Theatre Group, who also co-commissioned the work.  Our director Kristy Edmunds was recently featured alongside Lee on a podcast from Center Theatre Group, with the discussion led by CTG’s associate artistic director Diane Rodriguez. If three intelligent, driven women discussing avant-garde theater, collaborative power, and exchanging silly stories sounds like something you’re into, click here to listen online.

Lee recently spoke to the LA Times about the production, describing her creative process and the birth of this production. There is always a subversive element to Lee’s work, and she continues that trajectory by tackling the responsibilities of straight white men as an Asian-American woman.

“It’s the question of, ‘What do we want straight white men to do that they’re not doing? And what happens when they do that?'” Lee told the LA Times . “It’s a very current question. Because being a straight white man is a relatively new thing, historically. For years, they got to be the default human. And now, suddenly, they’re being slapped with labels, and they hate it. So it’s sort of approaching a timeless question from a slightly different perspective.”

We were thrilled to collaborate with CTG and Young Jean Lee on co-presenting Straight White Men, and not simply because we are always happy to have our name associated with an exciting and provocative event. It’s not the first time we’ve worked with Young Jean Lee—you may remember her cabaret performance WE’RE GONNA DIE in our 2013-2014 season. Lee is doing brave, outspoken work on gender politics and personal identity, and we are proud to support it. But our true excitement stems from working alongside Lee and CTG to bring awareness of the production to an audience that might be unfamiliar with the company. LA’s theater problem isn’t insurmountable. We just all have to be willing to put the strength of the community above the desire to be number one.

Straight White Men runs at the Kirk Douglas Theater until December 20th.

To read more about our collaborations, visit http://cap.ucla.edu/artinaction/special_initatives/15_16_program_collaborations

Beyoncé danst Rosas

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It seems as though the artistic community must have the same discussion every few years (and presumably will continue to do so ad infinitum) – where do we draw the line between inspiration and theft? Every so often a song will top the charts or a video will go viral that prompts us to ask what may have inspired it. These conversations are happening on the local and national levels, and never seem to come to a satisfying conclusion. An artist can win a case saying that what some call “inspiration” others call “copyright infringement,” but where does that leave us after the settlement? However it may have been born, that art is now alive and out in the world, affecting moods and sometimes effecting change.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker entered the conversation a few years ago. A prolific and stimulating dancer and choreographer, De Keersmaeker has been active in her work since the early 80s, and received numerous international accolades. One work in particular, Rosas danst Rosas (1983), is one of her more well-known pieces, winning a Bessie award for choreography in 1987.

Well-known enough, in fact, that it would appear somebody in Beyoncé’s creative team was “inspired” by it. According to De Keersmaeker, Beyoncé and director Adria Petty lifted moves, costumes and staging from Rosas danst Rosas as well as elements from 1990’s Achterland. “I’m not mad, but this is plagiarism,” Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker told Studio Brussel in an interview. “What’s rude about it is that they don’t even bother about hiding it.” After the news hit, the Queen Bey and her creative team admitted to being “inspired” by De Keersmaeker’s work.

What was impressive was De Keersmaeker’s follow-up in 2013. She could have been litigious, but instead she decided to open up the conversation to everyone. In celebration of the work’s 30th anniversary, De Keersmaeker uploaded a series of videos on her website that allow a viewer to learn part of Rosas Danst Rosas, and invited all of us to film our performances and upload them. Thousands of people, of all ages and from all over the world, have taken her up on the offer. A trailer for this “remix” features little children, pregnant women, even teenage girls in their school yard in India. What started as a statement on theft turned into a dialogue on the right to participate in art. Sometimes participation is simply spectating, holding a space for it to occur. Sometimes it means imitating a style. In this case, however, it meant teaching the process to the world.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is here with Rosas, her company, for a four-night extravaganza of different works—including Rosas danst Rosas on November 12th. We would love for you, as a part of our community, to learn the compelling movements and film the outcome to share in a similar “remix” video. The onus is on all of us now here at UCLA to participate in this international dialogue on who can perform and take ownership of somebody else’s artistic creation. We invite you to speak with us.

Visit http://cap.ucla.edu/calendar/details/rosas_remix for the full details.

We Need to Talk About Tina Benko

We are in the final throes of preparation for Desdemona, in its Los Angeles premiere Thursday night.

Thus far, we’ve talked and heard a lot about the creators of this exceptional work of theater, with Toni Morrison receiving the UCLA Medal just yesterday, and Rokia Traore returning to CAP UCLA after a triumphant concert experience last spring.

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It’s time to talk Tina Benko. As the company has come back together over the last few weeks, remounting this work for our stage, we have been overwhelmed by the absolute greatness of this gifted actress.

Morrison’s language is as gently evocative and eloquent as you might assume, Traoré’s powerful ,musical presence and voice provides emotional tethering and texture, but Benko’s performance is what allows us to traverse time and space, to defy the laws of mortality and to experience the richness that is inherent in this quiet, but unmistakably potent piece of theater.

Benko stars as Desdemona, alongside Traoré as Barbary, but there are other characters in this play, other voices, all of whom are embodied and enlivened and shared with us by Tina Benko alone. It is a feat of performance that not just any actor could bear.

Tina is a stage actor who has performed worldwide, and is a consummate and commanding presence. She was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for playing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Elfriede Jellinek’s solo play Jackie. She won the Bayfield award for her portrayal of Titania in Julie Taymor’s production of Midsummer Nights Dream at Theatre For a New Audience. Other theatre credits include the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s commissioned play Informed Consent, Katori Hall’s Whaddabloodclot!!!, Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce, David Grimm’s Tales From Red Vienna, as well as Not About Nightingales and Irena’s Vow on Broadway. She’s appeared in several hit films and television shows including The Avengers, “The Good Wife,” “Blue Bloods,” “Mysteries of Laura,” “Person of Interest,” “Brotherhood” and “Flesh and Bone.”

In Benko, as Desdemona, worlds collide; Morrison’s words find heightened consanguinity with Traore’s lyrics. Inside this remarkable artist the centuries of ill-fated love between Shakespeare’s tormented Othello and Desdemona alchemize into a new reality, a new truth.

I feel confident in promising that her performance will be a gift we will carry with us long after the curtain has closed. Don’t miss it.

There are a few tickets still available for Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances.

And then it’s gone.

Join us, and help us applaud Tina Benko.

Diving Deep into ‘Desdemona’

If you’re the type who likes to take a deep dive into the story behind the story, take a minute to read this thoughtful and comprehensive essay from Desdemona director Peter Sellars, written for the program notes. If you’re the type who prefers surprises, stop reading now and simply purchase a ticket, you won’t regret it. 

Then join us next weekend. Just four performances of this elusive and magical work and it will be gone. 

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photo by Peter DaSilva

Desdemona Director’s Note

This project is a literary and musical collaboration between Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré, moving across continents, shared and divergent histories, imagined “other worlds,” and the darkly resonant, open-ended poetry of William Shakespeare’s Othello.

Writing from Bamako, in Mali, Rokia Traoré is one of a new generation of African women, a clear and courageous citizen of the world stepping forward into leadership, musical heir to the griot traditions of the Mandean royal courts and the particular alchemy of Malian music that gave birth to the blues in North America. Her music is a rich blend of cross-Atlantic traditions in a distinctly feminine voice.

Toni Morrison has created fiction that imagines, evokes and honors the missing histories of generations whose courage, struggles, achievements, loves, tragedies, fulfillments and disappointments have gone unrecorded, but are still very much with us.

Shakespeare’s Othello is a permanent provocation. For four centuries it has been the most visible portrayal of a black man in Western art. It is a play seething with innuendo, misinformation, secrets, lies, self-deception, cruelty, and strangely luminous redemption. It has been read by generations as a coded, indirect reference to the coded, indirect layers of justice and injustice that move across racial lines in Western societies. Because the play is so intricate and ultimately disturbing, much of its performance history has reduced it to a kind of puppet show of a brilliant but dangerously mad black man framed by a devil on his left (Iago) and an angel on his right (Desdemona).

What was the reality of Africa for Shakespeare?

Did he know any Africans? Clearly the man who called his theater The Globe was interested in Africa, and his two multicultural plays set in Venice, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, are filled with references to Africa.

This project grew out of an astonishing line which appears late in Act IV of Othello. Othello has just visited Desdemona in her bedroom and threatened her with terrifying and pointed menace. He leaves, and Desdemona, deeply shaken, asks her companion, Emilia, to help her get ready for bed.

Entering an eerily emotional twilight that will lead to her violent death, she tells Emilia that she can’t get a certain song out of her head. She learned this song, she tells Emilia, from her mother’s maid, Barbary, who died while singing it, of a broken heart.

In one line, Shakespeare has suddenly given us a series of startling images. The appearance of the word mother tips us off—Shakespeare’s plays are filled with mysterious, missing women and this is only the second reference to Desdemona’s mother in the entire play. But it is the word Barbary which triggers surprising associations. In 17th century London, Barbary meant Africa. The Barbary pirates were hijacking British vessels off the coast of Africa, enslaving their white, British crews.

In 1600, a delegation of ambassadors from the Barbary court, Africans of high degree, splendidly dressed, arrived in London to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth. That advent stirred much discussion in London. That Shakespeare, writing Othello in 1603, uses the name Barbary implies that there is another African character in his play.

Shakespeare has already been at pains to demonstrate in Act I that Desdemona’s parents don’t know their own daughter, and now as she sings her famous “Willow Song,” the quiet, dark, emotional still-point of the night, we are left to reflect that Desdemona—this tender, brilliant, courageous, generous young woman—was raised by an African maid with African stories and African songs. Barbary is one of Shakespeare’s powerful and enigmatic missing women—he did not write for her, but he imagined her. In Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré’s Desdemona, we meet her at last, and Desdemona meets her again.

As a young woman, Desdemona rejected the usual suitors from the Venetian court—it was a black woman who taught Desdemona how to love and now, Desdemona chooses to offer her love to a black man. In Act I of Othello, Shakespeare has Othello tell the Venetian Senate that he and Desdemona fell in love as he told her stories—stories of his youth as a child soldier, stories of suffering, reversal, privation, salvation, transformation, and unexpected human generosity. Stories of other worlds. And with the image of Barbary lingering in our minds, we can now imagine that Desdemona could have grown up hearing some of those stories.

And of course Toni Morrison wanted to write those stories.

In Desdemona, Toni Morrison has created a safe space in which the dead can finally speak those things that could not be spoken when they were alive. And finally, the women inside Shakespeare’s play and those in the shadows, just outside of it, find their voices: Othello’s mother and Desdemona’s mother meet, and hidden histories are shared and begin to flow.

Desdemona was Shakespeare’s ideal creation —like Dante’s Beatrice, a vision of perfection, a woman offering love and forgiveness in the face of hatred, mistrust, and murderous lies. In Shakespeare’s late tragedies, the ideal woman— Desdemona, Virgilia, Cordelia—was mostly silent.

For Toni Morrison, the ideal woman is not silent. Finally, she speaks. And as she speaks, she reveals secrets, hopes, dreams, but also her own imperfections. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is divine perfection, but Toni Morrison allows her to be human, to make mistakes, and finally, with eternity stretching before her, to learn, and then to understand. Shakespeare’s play spans two days. Desdemona and Othello elope Monday night at 2 a.m., are thrust into a wild media-centric marriage as they travel in the public eye into a theater of war, and he has murdered her by Wednesday night. The play strangely offers no one much room for reflection.

It is pointedly odd that the author of Hamlet affords the title character in Othello only a single 12-line soliloquy. For the rest of the play, this black man is performing in front of white people and we have very few clues about his inner life. Desdemona is an astonishing teenager but is suffocated before she or we have a chance to learn her thoughts or feelings. In Toni Morrison’s creation, Desdemona is no longer a teenager but a mature woman with perspective and the opportunity to gradually recognize and let go of her own illusions.

And so in Desdemona, we begin to glimpse some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s Othello with new insight in the light of deepened histories. What was the dark secret that held Othello and Iago in a bond of mutual dependency and hatred? What were the moments of happiness and promise and fulfillment in the great love between Desdemona and Othello before it was tainted by the world?

One other silent woman in Shakespeare’s play enters into a new dimensionality: Emilia, Iago’s terrified wife (“I nothing, but to please his fantasy.”). She appears in nearly every scene of Shakespeare’s play and she almost never speaks.

She is the one person who knows the truth of the lie of the handkerchief—at any moment she could speak up and prevent the injustice and bloodbath that overwhelm the play. Shakespeare creates a portrait of silence that is complicit with mass murder, that hopes by not uttering the truth to save its own skin, but that will in fact become the next victim when the lie follows its inexorable course.

Shakespeare’s foil for Othello, the gifted, inspiring black leader, is Cassio, an ambitious, glib, weak career politician with a crippling addiction to alcohol and sex. Othello’s first act as Governor of Cypress is to fire him, with cause. Desdemona, whose openness of spirit urges rehabilitation, redemption, and forgiveness, challenges her husband to reinstate Cassio, privately, and then in public. Shakespeare’s mature tragedies strike a bitter note on their last page—the future will be even more bleak—after the flawed greatness of Hamlet we get Fortinbras. After Othello’s death the terrible irony is that he is replaced as Governor by the mediocrity and venality of Cassio. Was Desdemona wrong to support Cassio at the cost of her own life?

Toni Morrison responded to lacunae and poetic ambiguities in Shakespeare and to her own sense of unspoken truths. In communication with Toni by email, Rokia Traoré responded to Toni’s unfolding story with songs that answered or deepened the human questions and the metaphysical aspects in an African context. Her work references African tropes and traditions. Dongori for example, refers to a woven cloth of thorns, a lament and an image that evokes a bitter African proverb for young women: your bridal veil will be your funeral shroud.

In Rokia Traoré’s new version, young women rewrite that proverb and defiantly, tenderly and respectfully claim a different future. The dah and kaicedrat in the overwhelming refrain of Dianfa are fruits with a pungent, acrid taste. The song “Kemeh Bourama” offers a brief sample of the centuries-old griot tradition. This is the way that the exploits of great warriors were recorded, sung and celebrated in the courts of Segou and Timbuktu, and we begin to hear the epic mode in which Othello’s story would have been told in Africa in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

In performance, dialogues spoken by the actress playing Desdemona are in dialogue with songs sung by Rokia Traoré as Barbary. The only song lyrics not written by Rokia Traoré are Shakespeare’s “Willow Song” and the pendant which Toni Morrison wrote in counterpoint to Shakespeare’s “Willow Song,” “Someone Leans Near.”

Four hundred years later, Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré respond to Shakespeare’s Othello, offering some missing pieces and wider perspectives.

Women now have the scope to speak their minds and their hearts, and Africa is real, not just imagined. The women speak to us from the other side of the grave, older now, no longer teenagers.

In African traditions, the dead are quite undead and very present, and for them, as Toni Morrison says, the past and the future are the same.

Desdemona and Othello meet again in the afterlife.

With difficulty, humility and remorse, a space of reconciliation is created. The apologies that we have waited four hundred years to hear are finally spoken. We are not simply left with tragedy. In a time outside of time that illuminates and infuses the present, Desdemona confronts her demons, reconciling the past, and now, no longer alone, prepares a future.

–Peter Sellars, June 2012

Thoughts from the staff of CAP UCLA