Thursday, October 27, 2011

Malian singer Rokia Traoré Finds A Rare Spotlight in Western Theater

Rokia Traoré, celebrated female musician and singer from Mali, has found a spotlight in Desdemona, a recent production written by author Toni Morrisson and directed by French experimental theater director Peter Sellars. It's a unique and rare spotlight for an African artist. While African musicians crossing over to the west is nothing new, few of them have found themselves at the center of such progressive theatrical performances.

The show, which is a concert and a play welded together, stems from a disagreement on the part of Peter Sellars and Toni Morrison over the significance of the play Othello. Morrison was challenged by Sellers to create a "response" to Shakespeare's tragic tale on the moor of Venice. The result is interactive performance of words and music regarding the doomed heroine of the Othello, Desdemona. During the performance, she speaks from the grave about subjects ranging from race and gender to war and love.

Traoré plays the part of Desdemona's imaginary nursemaid, Barbary, who acts as a confidant to Desdamona's laments and in turn, much of the music of the play is performed by Traoré who wrote all the music. Accompanied by a trio of female backing singers, Traoré plays most of the music with West African lute and a type of bridge harp while the lyrics were composed through an exchange between emailed text from Toni Morrison and Ms. Traoré. Many of the lyrics are in her native Bambara language.

Thusfar, the play has received polarizing reviews; however, critics have applauded Traoré's performance and almost unaniamously agreed that she is the spotlight of the show. Les Echos, a French daily, described Traoré's voice as “magical, at times soft, at times impetuous.” While a critic for the daily Le Monde said Ms. Traoré had an “absolutely magnificent presence."

The show will have a mostly limited run. It will be in New York for performances on Nov. 2 and 3 at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center as part of the White Light Festival. In addition, it will be seen in Berlin in mid-November and in London during the Summer Olympics next year.

For more information on the show, check out the review from The New York Times.

-Saxon Baird
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