Theater Review / Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, A splendid multimedia production from the Fringe

By Joanna Brady

I love it when a playwright takes an existing play, gives it a neat literary twist, and writes another play with a different message. This is what happens when a Nobel prize winner like Toni Morrison takes on a Shakespearean tragedy and gives it an intriguing spin.

The Fringe production of this experiment, now playing at Aqua’s Side Bar, is a feast for the senses. Morrison’s story is fascinating, the music, with its dreamy spa quality and tribal African beat, is mesmorizing, and the talent is prodigious.

Morrison’s Desdemona picks up where Shakespeare’s Othello leaves off, taking place in Desdemona’s afterlife. It also happens to be the afterlife of Othello himself, and a few other people. 

Nobody would ever mistake the Shakespearean work for a feminist play. It’s the character-driven story of an African general in the Venetian army, his beautiful white Venetian wife Desdemona, and his treacherous subaltern, Iago. The story is fraught with racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, suicide, and repentance, Oh, and let’s not forget murder. But it was a powerful play, one that inspired Verdi to write an awe-inspiring opera, a favorite role for black tenors like Russell Thomas. 

In case you’ve forgotten the gist of Othello from your college English courses, the evil Iago, angry at being passed over for a promotion, talks Othello, his gullible superior, into believing that his wife, with whom he eloped, has deceived him, and in a fit of rage, Othello strangles her. Of course, she hasn’t done any such thing, and he figures that out, but it’s too late. In a fit of misery and self-loathing, he commits suicide. Except for Desdemona and her nursemaid, with some input by minor characters, the important focus throughout is the interplay between the two men, Othello and Iago. 

Toni Morrison set out to address that imbalance, with her story told from Desdemona’s point of view after her murder. A nice role reversal. The character with her in this play is a talented woman of color, Su Nubia, who plays several roles, including Othello, his mother, Desdemona’s nursemaid Barbary, and Iago’s wife (her maid Emilia), also murdered. The set in this production is effectively simple, draped in purple for mourning. With only two actors, both talented, the unfinished business in Othello is brought to light and dealt with. How does Desdemona feel about having been murdered after erroneously being accused of infidelity? The fatalistic answer may surprise the audience. In death, she has become assertive and affectionate. She cannot forgive her husband, and yet, she can still love him. The afterlife story is told in multimedia with music, the dance, and video to help tell the tale.

I’m a great admirer of the Fringe theater under Rebecca Tomlinson’s creative direction. Tomlinson never shirks from attempting works that are complicated in concept, difficult to stage, and never very easy to direct. Desdemona is a collaboration of Tomlinson wearing her director’s hat, and a very talented group of stagecraft impresarios—a choreographer, videographer, yoga instructor, lighting designers, and singing bowl musician. Martha Hooten-Hattingh is an angelic-looking Desdemona—she also plays her mother—opposite Su Nubia, who plays the rest of the characters. Both are lithe and graceful as they sing, recite and dance their way through the hour long performance. 

You’ll be hearing the tribal African drum beat in your head for hours after watching this unusual presentation. A feast for the senses. See it soon.

Tickets for this remarkable production are available online at www.fringetheater.org or by calling the Fringe Box Office 305 731-0581. Desdemona The show takes place at Aqua’s Side Bar, 504 Angela St. and runs Feb. 19 through 23. It’s a short run, and the capacity is extremely limited, so book your ticket fast! For more information, email info@fringetheater.org 

(Joanna Brady is a local writer, author of the historical Key West novel, The Woman at the Light, published by St. Martin’s Press)