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Shakespeare’s 21st-century collaborator

It may be a stretch to think of Toni Morrison as picking up where Shakespeare left off, but that’s more or less what she has done in Desdemona, her theatrical response to Othello, opening this month at Cal Performances. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello says that his stories of battle and adventure are what made Desdemona fall in love with him—so Morrison decided to invent some of those seductive tales. She also developed a hitherto unseen character, the African maid Barbary. Based on the original Desdemona’s reference to her mother’s maid, Barbary creates a deep personal context for Desdemona’s love for the dark-skinned general. Besides Morrison, luminaries involved in the production include the extraordinary African singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, who wrote the music and plays the role of Barbary, and director Peter Sellars, who has a history of doing edgy multidisciplinary and cross-cultural projects. The result of this exciting collaboration thrilled audiences in Vienna, Brussels, and Paris earlier this year. There’s every reason to believe it will do the same here.