Photo via Voices from the Gap

In a night of good theater and crazy-ass/disastrous commentary, famed authors Toni Morrison and Assia Djebar stopped by Miller Theater for a presentation of selections from their theatrical works. Though the night started out well, it ended with an onstage intellectual train wreck.

First up was Margaret Garner, an opera based on the central story in Beloved. Though an opera based on the Pulitzer-prize winning novel may sound like a strange idea, the four songs performed were impressive, rousing the audience to a hearty round of applause for Morrison. The performers were clearly well acquainted with the music, and the opera brought the story a more immediate emotional poignancy than the novel possessed.

Djebar’s The Daughters of Ishmael was similarly a success. The Italian play depicts the events surrounding the death of the prophet Muhammad, focusing on the women around him. The female characters’ personal strength and freedom subverts misogynist forms of contemporary Islam. As the woman who introduced the selections phrased it in the understatement of the year, “the interpretations [modern Islam] went a little far from the original.” But the play is compelling because it is more than an anti-radical diatribe; it defies the typical Occidental view that Islam is, at its core, an oppressive religion. It is well worth picking up Far From Medina, the novel on which the play is based.

After the successful selections, however, the night took a turn for the bat-shit insane. For the panel discussion afterward, sixteen people were brought on stage, a panoply of performers, musicians, authors and intellectuals who could barely all fit across the proscenium. What ensued was a fruitless and frustrating mix of dumb questions and all-around awkwardness. The always-engaging Morrison had some interesting things to say about the distinctions between the play and the novel, but the event organizers seemingly forgot that Djebar doesn’t speak English. One of the professors onstage had to provide impromptu translation, and the professor was cut off before she could translate the final question. Meanwhile, Gayatri Spivak, the moderator for the evening, found it necessary to rove around backstage like John McCain at a Presidential debate.

While the troupe of intellectuals carted onstage were supposed to pose questions, they instead prattled on about their personal interpretations of the works and then addressed the authors with something to the effect of, “am I right or am I right?” When Spivak opened the discussion to the audience, a professor from Stony Brook, who apparently felt there hadn’t been enough self-serving rambling, went on about her own esteemed translation work without ever asking a question. To add to the bizarre scene, a baby in the audience was (understandably) screaming with discontent, raising the big question someone should have been asking: who brings a baby to the opera!?

All in all, it was a pity that Columbia didn’t make more of having both Morrison and Djebar present together. Hopefully, next time the University hosts such a performance, we’ll all remember the dictum three’s company, sixteen’s a crowd.