As part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Cornell will present the author’s “Desdemona” Oct. 27 and 28 at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
The play is a part of President Martha E. Pollack’s Freedom of Expression at Cornell initiative and features singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, who wrote the music for the original production and who will take part in a conversation after the Oct. 28 performance. Morrison’s son, Ford Morrison, is also scheduled to visit campus for the Oct. 28 performance and discussion.
“‘Desdemona’ is poetic, personal, pained, but also progressive,” said Beth Milles ’88, associate professor of performing and media arts in the College of Arts and Sciences and the play’s director. “There is a gut-wrenching beauty at the center of the work, an aim to reconcile a fraught past, while interrogating the possibility of healing.”
Morrison wrote the play in 2011, in collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars and Traoré. It centers on the wife in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and her African nurse, Barbary.
Anne Adams, professor emeritus and co-founder of the Toni Morrison Collective at Cornell, said that Morrison and Sellars were longtime friends. Sellars, though he directed many Shakespeare plays, was not a fan of “Othello.” He challenged Morrison to reimagine the play from the point of view of the women characters, which she did, inviting Traoré to create music to interweave within her text.
The music of Traoré, who is from Mali, adds special symbolism to the production, Milles said. Cornell was able to bring her to campus thanks to collaborations with multiple departments, the Toni Morrison Collective, and grants from the Rural Humanities Initiative and the Cornell Council for the Arts.
“This is an incredibly rare opportunity to collaborate with a core collaborator to the original work,” Milles said. “Rokia’s score engages fundamentally with Morrison’s text. She weaves in and out of the spoken word, escalating and elevating the moment-to-moment experience. Traoré is an incredible artist. Her work interweaves the past with the future. She has been a generous part of the project.”
As Milles was developing the project this summer, she worked with students who were part of the Nexus Scholars Program. Alice Roberts ’25, Amy Wang ’24 and Angel Katthi ’24 worked as dramaturgical researchers, examining the text, seeking out related source material and emailing collaborators.
“They worked collaboratively as a research room to examine the context surrounding the performance, design, geographic and local emotional displacement prioritized by the text,” Milles said. “They were self-motivated scholars with a diversity of interests and backgrounds.”
Milles said “Desdemona” is a complex response to “Othello” and examines some of the most difficult truths and challenging aspects of Shakespeare’s work: violence, racism and sexism.
“The stories are told from Desdemona’s point of view, set in the afterlife, in this case an imaginative spiritual space where the actions of the original work can be re-examined,” she said. “At the core of the piece is recognition, facing our actions and our mistakes and offering the possibility of honesty and the potentiality of forgiveness.”
The play is co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the departments of performing and media arts, Africana studies, music, literatures in English, American studies and Romance studies, and Cornell’s Institute for African Development.
The production is part of an ongoing celebration of Morrison at Cornell, led by the Toni Morrison Collective and Adams, who was faculty host when Morrison was A.D. White Professor-at-Large from 1997-2003. The collective’s first event was a public streaming of a reading of Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” in 2020, the 50th anniversary of its publication. Readers included Cornell faculty and staff, as well as local community members and celebrated authors and activists such as Angela Y. Davis and Tayari Jones.
Other upcoming Toni Morrison events and collaborations:
- Oct. 21, 3 p.m.: Toni Morrison Song Cycles: CU Music at Barnes Hall
- Oct. 19 through the end of fall semester: A display at Olin Library of 19 different translations of “The Bluest Eye,” along with a display about the play “Desdemona” and its backstory.
- Oct. 26, 5-7 p.m.: The Reuben A. and Cheryl Casselberry Munday Distinguished Lecture by Dana Williams, president of the Toni Morrison Society, dean of the Howard Graduate School and professor of African American Literature at Howard University.
The Toni Morrison Collective is collaborating with Ithaca’s Calvary Baptist Church to provide more than 200 copies of Toni Morrison’s works for community members. This enables community engagement through reading discussions in the local community about Morrison, who lived in Ithaca for two years.