On Paris Stages, Black Directors Forge a New Course

PARIS — On a recent Sunday evening, Paris played host to a theater troupe that had come a long way. The Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane traveled from French Guiana, nestled north of Brazil on the Atlantic coast of South America, with its latest production: “Bernarda Alba From Yana,” staged by the company’s director, Odile Pedro Leal.

Yana, here, means Guiana. In this shrewd adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” the repressed sisters at the heart of the Spanish play speak Creole and dream of men who farm sugar cane. And for the first time I can recall in over a decade of theatergoing in Paris, the audience around me was predominantly Black — a situation that shouldn’t be so rare in such a racially diverse city.

Yet “Bernarda Alba From Yana” was performed only once, and not in a major Paris playhouse. Instead, it was presented at the Maurice Ravel Conservatory, a training institution, as part of Le Mois Kréyol (Creole Month), a festival dedicated to promoting artists from France’s numerous overseas territories, which include once colonized islands and regions dotted 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, which was created in 2017 by the Caribbean-born choreographer Chantal Loïal, also celebrates French Blackness — and is a reminder of what the country’s mainstream theater is missing. Broadway’s power players signed a sweeping diversity pact in August; in France, overseas theatermakers and their peers of African origin remain shut out of leadership positions.

Of France’s five national theaters and 38 “national dramatic centers,” none has a Black director — not even the national dramatic center in La Réunion, a multicultural French island near Madagascar. Although representation is slowly improving onstage, with more diverse drama school cohorts and regular instances of colorblind casting, it has yet to translate to Black creators being their own bosses.

The dancer and activist Josephine Baker, who will be interred in the Panthéon, France’s storied tomb of heroes, on Nov. 30, is the subject of two productions this winter; neither of them is directed by a Black artist. Just this season, the lives of Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis made it to the stage in similar fashion; and in a country that prides itself on being colorblind, asking why Black directors weren’t considered is taboo.

All of these shows may turn out to be good, but “Bernarda Alba From Yana” and a new production by the Guinea-born playwright Hakim Bah, “Out of Sweat” (“À Bout de Sueurs”), point to a richer way forward. It was obvious that both were steeped in an intimate knowledge of the cultures at hand. The acting palette also departed from French norms to embrace local accents, which tend to be erased elsewhere in favor of a “neutral” delivery, as well as a greater range of body language.

In Pedro Leal’s hands, this makes “Bernarda Alba” a warmer proposition than usual. In lieu of the strait-laced grief often associated with García Lorca’s play, in “Bernarda Alba From Yana,” the women sing and dance through their pain. The mourning scene for Bernarda’s second husband, early in the play, is a vivid ritual, set to a Guianese song: The matriarch’s five daughters assemble around her, chanting, clapping and writhing on the floor. Later, two of the sisters, bored by the complete isolation that the domineering Bernarda has forced on them, shimmy and sway their hips in a dance-off.

In that scene and elsewhere, Sarah Jean-Baptiste makes a mercurial Adela, and there is a delightful sense of mischief to many of the actors’ performances. Micheline Dieye and Pedro Leal shine as the family’s willful servants, as does Jean-Marc Lucret in a cross-dressing take on the role of Martirio. Far from altering the play’s dynamics, the contrast between the characters’ impetuous physicality and the atmosphere of repression is made all the more acute.

Pedro Leal made subtle tweaks to the text to emphasize the Guianese setting. (García Lorca’s frequent references to heat offer built-in help.) Creole is so rarely heard onstage that it’s a treat to listen to performers getting lines in the language, with enough context that their meaning is clear to non-Creole speakers. Since French was imposed as the official language on 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 angry demand: “French in my house!”

The set was presumably designed for ease of touring: curtains, some wire fence and a few seats, including a crescent-shaped Saramaka stool, must do the job from start to finish. Nevertheless, “Bernarda Alba From Yana” is a milestone for such a young company. While Pedro Leal has worked as a director in mainland France and in Guiana since the 1990s, the Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane was founded only in 2017, and it is now supported by public funding. It is a 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 (Universe of Words). Bah’s plays have earned him several distinctions; “Out of Sweat,” the latest, won the 2019 Laurent Terzieff-Pascale de Boysson prize, which comes with a spot in the lineup at the Lucernaire theater.

The pandemic delayed the premiere twice, but “Out of Sweat,” directed by Bah and Diane Chavelet, has now found its way to the smallest of the Lucernaire’s three stages. It is masterfully, economically built around just a handful of scenes and characters, who are from an unspecified African country. Fifi, who has immigrated to France, returns home for a fleeting visit. There, she convinces Binta, an old friend saddled with an unfaithful husband, to seduce a Frenchman online, in the hope of securing a better future.

Even though the end of the play was inspired by a real-life tragedy, Bah’s approach is more poetic than realistic. What drives “Out of Sweat” is the inner logic and musicality of each scene. When Fifi and Binta are reunited, they repeat each other’s names again and again, with a mix of surprise, growing recognition and suspicion, truncating sentences in ways that build up to an intriguing rhythm.

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

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

Le Mois Kréyol. Festival directed by Chantal Loïal. Further productions around France through Nov. 28.
À Bout de Sueurs. Directed by Hakim Bah and Diane Chavelet. Le Lucernaire, through Dec. 5.

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