Keynote: Ayanna Thompson

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining the ASC blog for today’s Keynote speaker today, Liz is here to blog this session from ten thirty in the morning until eleven thirty in the morning. Our Keynote speaker today is Ayanna Thompson of George Washington University. Today, she will be speaking on Reading Backwards from Morrison to Shakespeare: Desdemona/Othello. John Attig sponsors this session.

First, Sarah Enloe, ASC Director of Education, comes out and introduces our very first conference sponsor, John Attig. We thank him for all of the really cool new events. Enloe also encourages everyone to get to the Lunch and Learn at Masonic as soon as possible after the Keynote ends at eleven thirty today. She also encourages scholars to fill out some prompts from Antony and Cleopatra to help with the staging session tomorrow. Finally, she advises presenters to email their presentations to kim@americanshakespearecenter.com.

Next, Dr. Ralph Cohen introduces Thompson, a Professor of English at George Washington University and Trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. He enumerates her published works, both as an author and editor, most of which focus on race and Shakespeare. These include Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America, and Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. Her current focus is on two in-progress books, one of which centers on Peter Seller’s form of directing. Dr. Cohen emphasizes that Thompson brings her research and scholarship puts her findings into practice in the real world. He ends his introduction and points out the largely white audience at the conference today and stresses the need for Thompson’s work today.

Thompson thanks Dr. Cohen for “possibly the best introduction she has ever had” (a rough paraphrase) and jumps right into her speech. Thompson points to Desdemona as an empowered and empowering female character, yet also disempowered and complicit to the Moor, Othello. Most performances choose to place Desdemona on one these two poles. Thompson mentions the misogynistic tendencies in both Iago and Othello throughout the play and shares an example of Iago’s flawed logic. She then states that scholars have grappled with how to portray these tendencies to modern audiences along with how to portray Desdemona.

This talk focuses on a specific form of adaptation of Othello, that of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. Thompson clarifies that she believes that appropriation has a more direct and pointed purpose than adaptation. She then explains that she believes that re-vision takes appropriation a step further by breaking new ground. Thompson follows this up with an introduction to several late twentieth century adaptations and re-visions of Othello, including Goodnight, Juliet, Good Morning, Desdemona and Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief.

Morrison and Sellars collaborated to give Desdemona a full voice in the actress Rokia Traoré, who plays Barbary. Desdemona, in this production, is enigmatic, but also beautiful. Here, Desdemona’s voice dominates the play. The original intent for this production was for Morrison and Sellars to create a companion piece to Othello to show at secondary schools.

Thompson shares a story where she talked with Sellars’ The assistant told Thompson that the production team asked her to come in based on her research and work on casting. Thompson jokingly states that when she saw what was happening, she said, “Oh shit!”

Thompson explains that Morrison wanted to create a Desdemona that was different from any Shakespearean production with a great emphasis on music because “if Othello is about vision, Desdemona is about sound.” The goal was to unbind the story from time. The play takes place after death, in a “timeless” world. Desdemona knows more after death than she did during her life. Morrison’s response in this re-vision helps the audience reconcile with the tragedy of Othello that Iago brings to the life of Desdemona and the other characters.

Thompson explains that she offers a less optimistic view on the Othello/Desdemona binary. She believes that the lack of dialogue with other feminist writings has stunted development of new re-visions of Othello. She states that she sees the play as more of an event than a play, which impacts the play’s reproducibility. In addition, Thompson questions the ultimate utility of revisiting Othello.

As a performance product, Desdemona is a great experience. She describes the mostly-bare set, with the actress Traoré playing her guitar with teenage backup singers. Thompson describes these backup singers as upbeat and “in their own… play.” The stage is black with white costumes for the performers made of Malian linen. Projections on the background translate the text into the language of the location of the play, such as French. The actress playing Desdemona plays all of the other characters, with the exceptions of Cassio, who appears as a projected voice and Barbary – whose name is revealed to be Sa’aran [sic] – played by another actress. Thompson then plays a short clip of the performance with a song by Traoré for the audience.

In Desdemona, Desdemona and Othello’s mothers speak to each other. While the two women come to no clear resolution, but do come to an understanding about the different worlds from which they come. However, they cannot connect through religion. Desdemona’s mother wants to kneel and pray for her daughter, while Othello’s mother desires to make sacrifices for her son’s death. This found understanding comes through dialogue and appears again and again.

Thompson further talks about the character of Desdemona in the production Desdemona. Desdemona is the focus of the performance. Her parents named her “misery,” but she will not be passive to the misogynistic society which she was born into. Her character is “inquisitive, forceful, and direct.” Her insights alone are more hollow and shallow than in her conversations with other characters. These engagements with other characters allow her to explore herself and others. Here, Desdemona and Emilia gain a greater understanding with each other and Desdemona moves from judgment to understanding with Emilia. Time also allows Desdemona and Othello to gain a greater understanding of each other. Othello, in Desdemona’s afterlife timeline, tells his wife of his days in the army on the field. Othello describes to Desdemona how he and Iago raped a woman with a young boy viewer. He reveals their shame from this act, but also states that the memory will live in another: that of the young viewer. While Desdemona does not forgive him, but states that she will remain committed to him.

Here, in Desdemona, “we are not simply left with tragedy.” Thompson stresses that we get the apologies we have waited years for in this production. This re-vision allows for a resolution and the concrete possibility for another world. Desdemona’s interactions with other women creates a “queer space,” particularly with Barbary. Desdemona attempts to connect with Barbary; however, Barbary does not reveal an interest in further engagement with Desdemona. Desdemona includes her own suffering with Barbary’s suffering, which invites several interpretations of the connection of the suffering between these two women, including cultural appropriation.

Thompson states that the performance mode of Desdemona does not bridge the gap between sound and vision. Here, the potentials for the play contract, rather than expand, due to this limited scope. In addition, Thompson describes Traoré as the cornerstone of this production, and points out that currently the play does not have a run outside of her. In contrast, the production changed the actress for Desdemona at one point. This text, like many other re-visions, remains insulated and does not connect with other re-visions of Othello.

Thompson further stresses that Desdemona attempts to give a voice to the absent black woman in Othello through Traoré’s portrayal of Barbary.

Thompson, in quoting a woman who did not want her husband to play Othello in a performance, states that “This play is a struggle.” She then reflects that perhaps that should be the tagline for Othello, garnering a huge laugh from the audience.

Most revisionists have turned a blind eye to the breadth of Othello re-visions, particularly female-written re-visions, who seem to resist reading other re-visions of the play. Thompson notes that there is less of an intertextual dialogue between multiple present texts and a greater focus on the past original text, the Shakespearean text, and the present text in creation by the re-visionist.

Thompson notes that Traoré often talks about her travels between Mali and France and the greater death in childbirth among her friends in Mali. She has several concerns about death, a topic which she sings about a great deal in Desdemona. Thompson wonders if the play is the proper venue for these concerns that Traoré portrays within the contexts of Shakespeare’s story. She concludes by suggesting the possibility that Othello must stay on the shelf for this purpose, in order to fully explore this voice.

About bitsybetsy

Shakespeare and Performance graduate student.

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