On the Parisian stages, black directors forge a new course – .

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On the Parisian stages, black directors forge a new course – .


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PARIS – On a recent Sunday evening, Paris hosted a theater company that had come a long way. The Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane came from Guyana, nestled in the north of Brazil on the Atlantic coast of South America, with its latest creation: “Bernarda Alba From Yana”, directed by the director of the company, Odile Pedro Leal.

Yana, here, means Guyana. In this judicious adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s film “The house of Bernarda Alba”, the sisters repressed at the heart of the Spanish play speak Creole and dream of men who cultivate sugar cane. And for the first time in over a decade I can remember going to the theater in Paris, the audience around me was predominantly black – a situation that shouldn’t be so rare in such a racially diverse city.

However, “Bernarda Alba From Yana” has only been performed once, and not in a large Parisian auditorium. Instead, it was presented at the Maurice Ravel Conservatory, a training institution, as part of the Mois Kréyol (Creole Month), a festival dedicated to the promotion of artists from the many French overseas territories, which include islands and formerly colonized regions scattered around the world, from the Pacific to the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

Since these territories are home to many people of color, Le Mois Kréyol, created in 2017 by Caribbean choreographer Chantal Loïal, also celebrates French Blackness – and recalls what is lacking in the country’s dominant theater. Powerful Broadway actors signed a sweeping diversity pact in August; in France, directors from overseas and their peers of African origin remain excluded from management positions.

Of France’s five national theaters and 38 “national drama centers” in France, none has a black director – not even the national drama center on Reunion Island, a multicultural French island near Madagascar. While representation is slowly improving on stage, with more diverse drama school cohorts and regular instances of color blind casting, this has yet to translate into black creators being their own bosses.

The dancer and activist Joséphine Baker, who will be buried in the Pantheon, the tomb of the heroes of France, on November 30, is the subject of two productions this winter; none of them are directed by a black artist. This season alone, the lives of Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis have arrived on stage the same way; and in a country that prides itself on being color blind, asking why black directors weren’t considered is taboo.

All of these shows can turn out to be good, but “Bernarda Alba From Yana” and a new production by Guinean-born playwright Hakim Bah, “Out of Sweat” (“À Bout de Sueurs”), point to a richer cheeky path. It was evident that both were imbued with an intimate knowledge of the cultures at hand. The range of actors has also moved away from French standards to adopt local accents, which tend to be erased elsewhere in favor of a “neutral” performance, as well as a greater range of body language.

In the hands of Pedro Leal, this makes “Bernarda Alba” a warmer proposition than usual. Instead of the narrow heartbreak often associated with García Lorca’s play, in “Bernarda Alba From Yana”, women sing and dance through their pain. The mourning scene for Bernarda’s second husband at the start of the play is a living ritual, set to a Guyanese song: the five daughters of the matriarch gather around her, singing, banging and writhing on the floor. Later, two of the sisters, annoyed by the complete isolation Dominatrix Bernarda has imposed on them, sway and sway in a dance.

In this scene and elsewhere, Sarah Jean-Baptiste does a mercurial Adela, and there is a delicious sense of mischief in many of the actors’ performances. Micheline Dieye and Pedro Leal shine as voluntary servants of the family, just like Jean-Marc Lucret in a transvestite in the role of Martirio. Far from altering the dynamics of the piece, the contrast between the impetuous physicality of the characters and the atmosphere of repression is all the more acute.

Pedro Leal made subtle adjustments to the text to emphasize the Guyanese frame. (García Lorca’s frequent references to the heat offer built-in help.) Creole is so rarely heard on stage that it’s a treat to listen to the performers get cues in the language, with enough context for their meaning. be clear for non-Creoles. Since French has established itself as the official language in many overseas territories, there is something slightly meta about hearing Bernarda (Maïté Vauclin) repeatedly berating her daughters when she hears them slipping into Creole, with the furious demand: “Le français chez moi!”

The set was probably designed to make touring easier: curtains, a few fences, and a few seats, including a crescent-shaped Saramaka stool, have to do the job from start to finish. Nevertheless, “Bernarda Alba From Yana” is an important step for such a young company. While Pedro Leal has worked as a director in mainland France and Guyana since the 1990s, the Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane was only founded in 2017, and it is now supported by public funding. It is part of French culture and deserves to be seen.

The same could be said of the work of Bah, 34, who lives alternately in France and Guinea, where he co-founded a theater festival, Univers des Mots. Bah’s coins have earned him several distinctions; “Out of Sweat”, the latest to date, won the 2019 Laurent Terzieff-Pascale de Boysson prize, which is accompanied by a place in the programming of the Lucernaire theater.

The pandemic has delayed the premiere twice, but “Out of Sweat,” directed by Bah and Diane Chavelet, has now found its way to the smaller of the Lucernaire’s three stages. It is masterfully, economically constructed around a handful of scenes and characters, hailing from an unspecified African country. Fifi, who immigrated to France, returns home for a short-lived visit. There, she convinces Binta, an old friend struggling with an unfaithful husband, to seduce a Frenchman online, hoping to secure a better future.

Even though the end of the play was inspired by a lived tragedy, Bah’s approach is more poetic than realistic. What motivates “Out of Sweat” is the internal logic and musicality of each scene. When Fifi and Binta are reunited, they repeat themselves over and over again, with a mixture of increasing surprise, recognition and suspicion, truncating the sentences in such a way as to create an intriguing rhythm.

Diarietou Keita (Fifi) and Claudia Mongumu (Binta) play both comedy and pathos in their relationship with a living physique. As Binta’s unfaithful husband, Bachir, on the other hand, Vhan Olsen Dombo is withdrawn and then suddenly destructive. In a monologue set in an airport lounge, his performance turns into words and ends in piercing and piercing cries of frustration, his rhythm being closely mirrored by guitarist and electronic musician accompanying the action, Victor Pitoiset.

Yet even when their demeanor is extreme, all of the characters in “Out of Sweat” feel grounded in a nuanced understanding of the two worlds they inhabit. Like Pedro Leal and his company, Bah is obviously ready for bigger stages. When will the French theater give them and other black directors a permanent place at the table?

The Kréyol Month. Festival directed by Chantal Loïal. Other productions in France until November 28.
Out of Sweat. Directed by Hakim Bah and Diane Chavelet. Le Lucernaire, through Dec. 5.

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