Well, maybe not exactly asleep, but while experiencing his theater work Desdemona, if you find yourself slipping into a sort of meditative trance, or feel yourself straddling other unearthly worlds and universes…you’re doing it right.
Peter Sellars visited our offices last week to talk about our upcoming performances of Desdemona, a magical and thoughtful re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Othello, written by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and the magnificent Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, who performs in the piece with exceptional stage and film actress Tina Benko and an ensemble of Malian musicians. As he reflected on the attitude of this quiet piece, he laughingly recalled a sentiment often expressed in Japanese Noh Theater—“dozing encouraged.”
One of the things Peter very eloquently conveyed to us was the powerful quietness and absolutely intimate nature of this piece of theater.
“It is one of the most elusive things I have ever put on the stage,” he said. “You do sort of feel like you are starting to fall asleep and dream…your heart rate slows until you are feeling differently and aware of this flowing space between waking and dreaming, and this beautiful work of theater touches the edges of the dream state.”
The physical staging is purposely simple, designed to evoke the feeling of traditional African mourning altars, he said. We enter into this benevolent graveyard to be greeted by the voices of women—songs from Rokia Traoré that defy translation sung softly, eloquent language from Toni Morrison spoken softly and with deep intent. The technical sound requirements require precision instruments and exacting attention to detail so that every gesture, every sound, every movement from the stage may nurturingly welcome us deeper and deeper into a sense of otherworldliness, Sellars said.
The scope and shape of the play itself evolved organically over the course of its creation, Sellars said. There was no initial vision or design that the performers and writers were trying to match. Morrison essentially plucked one line out of the play, one line spoken quietly by Desdemona to the woman her husband was having an affair with, and amplified that one line into an otherworldly experience for us all, one that will change the way we think about the character of Othello, the historically revered man who invented him and the racial and social themes that continue to emanate through our society.
“In this age of big spectacle, what we are doing here is examining how valuable and rich is a single human being, and how many worlds reside within each of us,” Sellars said.
It is ephemerality laced with ephemerality packaged in ephemerality—and these are the trappings of transcendence.
We have a brief shining moment with these words and these exceptional performers. Just four performances in Freud Playhouse, a 500-seat theater. After that, the cast and crew travel to Australia for two festivals and it is not likely the play will be mounted again anytime soon. Traoré is a rising force in global music and will be focusing on her recording career for the foreseeable future. She is so integral to the casting, Sellars says she doesn’t see it ever being performed without her.
Be here with us. Let’s take this journey together.