OTHELLO/DESDEMONA, the latest INSeries production, is the result of something resembling a game of telephone. It began in 1565, when Italian writer Cinthio penned the short story “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”). Around 1603, William Shakespeare interpreted that story into The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi came along in 1887 with Otello, his operatic interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Then in 2011, the late novelist Toni Morrison decided to put her own twist on the tragedy with Desdemona, a response to Shakespeare’s story that takes place in the afterlives of Othello’s protagonists.
This month, the INSeries brings Verdi’s Otello and Morrison’s Desdemona together in one theatrical experience, OTHELLO/DESDEMONA, which takes place over the course of two evenings—Otello on the first, Desdemona on the second. Following two nights of previews at Source Theater, the show is slated to open on June 4 and 5. Later this month, the production travels to the Baltimore Theatre Project.
A multi-night theater production will probably be a first for many audience members. It’s certainly a first for Timothy Nelson, INSeries’ artistic director and the director of OTHELLO/DESDEMONA. He calls this sort of event “epic theater,” likening it to Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s two-part play that explores being gay and the AIDS crisis in 1980s America, or Peter Brook’s nine-hour play The Mahabharata.
“Epic theater is really my dream,” he says. “I don’t believe in theater as entertainment. Theater shouldn’t be a place you go to relax after a day’s work. I think theater is a place you go to invest time, and emotion, and mental energy. And because of that investment, you get paid back in catharsis. You get paid back in transformation.”
OTHELLO/DESDEMONA’s return on investment should be a valuable rethinking and reframing of the White, western canon that dominates theater and opera spaces.
“Nowhere more than opera—maybe ballet, also—do we deal with such a small canon of work that is so problematic,” Nelson says. “This project came a bit out of a desire to explore whether there’s a way to perform a Verdi Shakespeare, to perform Otello, that embraces its insufficiency as well as its brilliance. These are amazing pieces, but there’s no way to escape that it is two White men, however brilliant, talking about the Black experience.”
The Desdemona part of the production comes from the mind of Morrison, who spent half a lifetime writing sharp, brilliant novels about the Black experience. She was moved to write Desdemona after an argument with theater director Peter Sellars about the artistic merit of Othello. Morrison defended Othello, and said it only seemed shallow because stagings of it frequently oversimplified its characters. Eventually, Morrison and Sellars collaborated on an entirely new theatrical work that explored Othello’s characters in a manner they found lacking in the original.
Like any good Shakespeare tragedy, Othello ends in death. A lot of death. Desdemona cleverly takes place in the afterlife. “Once these characters are dead, once they’re in the afterlife, then they can finally talk about all the things that don’t get talked about in Othello, all the conversations that are too hard for us to have when we’re alive,” Nelson says.
Morrison’s piece revolves around Desdemona, Othello’s wife, but another character is there to bear witness to her reflections—Barbary, a maid she mentions in passing in Othello. Morrison and Sellars wondered where the maid’s name came from, and realized it was likely an invocation of Africa’s Barbary Coast. They deduced that Barbary was Black.
In the original 2011 production of Desdemona, the chanteuse role of Barbary was taken on by Malian singer-activist Rokia Traoré, who performed original songs throughout the play. In the INSeries staging, Barbary is played by soprano Claron McFadden, who performs music by Nina Simone.
“We knew there was no way we could perform [Traoré’s] music without her, and her band, and her language,” Nelson says. “As we thought about what other music could speak in that way, especially to an American audience that wouldn’t be familiar with Rokia’s music, the music of Nina Simone automatically came up. She has a very similar voice in terms of having incredible musical prowess, and having had a very deep personal relationship with Toni Morrison, and of course, being a major activist voice.”
On stage next to McFadden will be Maribeth Diggle, who plays Desdemona throughout both nights of OTHELLO/DESDEMONA. Diggle, an opera singer, stepped out of her comfort zone to take on the role—in Desdemona, there’s no singing in sight for the title character.
“I hate talking,” Diggle tells me, with a laugh, over Zoom. “I really hate talking. But I’m forcing myself to get used to it.”
As an opera singer, Verdi’s Desdemona is a role Diggle always dreamed of. But when she was cast in Nelson’s production, she began with learning the lines to Morrison’s play. Approaching the show in that order—Morrison, then Shakespeare—added new dimensions to Desdemona, Diggle says.
“I treated Desdemona as a victim very quickly,” she says. “You can fall into the trap—especially musically—of putting her in a very dramatic, fallen female position. And that just takes away so much of her, of what she is as a whole. So I was really glad to look at her from the other side first.”
That order was followed by the whole company. Nelson staged Desdemona first, back in December, and then staged Otello in March.
“All the dramaturgy decisions that we made in the Shakespeare—what are the characters’ motivations? What are their histories? What are their relationships off stage? All of that is based on Toni Morrison,” Nelson says. “So even though Toni Morrison died in 2019, she was our dramaturge. She taught us Othello.”
A contemporary American novelist specializing in stories about Black pain and joy may seem an unlikely teacher for the work of a White, English playwright who wrote about 400 years ago. But Morrison and Shakespeare—and Simone and Verdi—are linked by their brilliance, and their devotion to their craft, Nelson says.
“There’s something really meaningful about putting Morrison and Shakespeare on the same shelf in the library, and putting Verdi and Nina Simone, not in different musical spaces and saying, ‘Well, that’s pop music, and this is classical,’ but putting them right next to each other, sandwiched in, and experienced as one phenomenon.”
OTHELLO/DESDEMONA opens on June 2 at Source Theatre, and runs through June 19. inseries.org. $60–$80.