Edited by Judith G. Miller
322 pp. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Editor’s Note: Occasionally, a book comes along that cries out for multiple points of view in trying to assess it. One such book is a major new collection of plays written by the Ivoirian dramatist Koffi Kwahulé who left his native Côte d’Ivôire many years ago for France and who has made a significant reputation there, a reputation barely known in the anglophone world and certainly even less well-known in anglophone Africa. To this end, we have asked two reviewers to look at this collection of Kwahulé’s plays from their own particular points of view. One, Alvina Ruprecht, is a francophone Canadian scholar who speaks of the writer’s position in France; the other, Nigerian Femi Osofisan, is one of Africa’s leading anglophone dramatists who speaks of Kwahulé as gifted but one who has seemingly lost touch with his native continent.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht* (Canada)
This is the first anthology in English of Ivoirian playwright Koffi Kwahulé. A figure of growing importance in France, Kwahulé has spent the last thirty or so years of his life there studying acting, writing and publishing. He also completed a Doctorate in theatre at Paris III, la Sorbonne nouvelle. His theatrical output of more than thirty plays (many of which have been produced internationally) has helped define the new generation of “hybrid” Afro-French playwrights represented by Kossi Efoui, Caya Makhélé, José Pliya and others from Africa, who settled in France in recent decades.
Each of the seven plays presented is preceded by a brief introduction by Judith G. Miller, a Professor of French Studies at NYU, who has been working with Scènes Francophones Ecritures l’Altérité (SeFeA), a unit within the Research Institute of Theatre Studies of the University of the Sorbonne nouvelle, Paris III.
In her overall introduction to the volume entitled “Soundscapes, Mindscapes and Escape: An Introduction to the Theatre of Koffi Kwahulé” (followed by translator Chantal Bilodeau’s “Word about Translation”), Miller describes the situations that underpin the plays, as well as the related historical subtexts, giving explanations for specific African and French references and reasons for specific translation elements that explain the process, the difficulties and the discussions she had with the author himself. Miller also speaks of color-related theatrical practices in France, practices which have no counterpart to how such work functions in, for example, the United States.
Miller’s long list of published works includes a study of the French theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine (Ariane Mnouchkine, 2007); an anthology of plays by French and francophone women in collaboration with Christiane Makward (1994); a four-volume project bringing together women’s writings from Africa (Women Writing Africa, 2006-10); and an English translation of Martinican playwright Ina Césaire’s Rosanie Soleil, for the ongoing Caribbean Theatre Repertory Project in Paris.
The volume’s subtitle (In and Out of Africa), eloquently suggests the identity dilemma caused by displacement and sets the reader up for a discussion about the cultural status of the many French-speaking authors from the former African colonies, or even from the current overseas French departments, living in France since the 1960s. Many African writers settled in France and have rejected the “perceived expectations of those who feel that their work must correspond to preconceived myths of the sub-saharan continent, a culture of drums, dancing, themes of corruption and angry manifestos of tribalism” (3).
These writers reject portraits that show people of African origin as the “exotic other,” whereas they are actually portraying a “contemporary human experience of rape and cruelty and violence,” not only linked to blacks, but rather “as lived by blacks” (Kwahulé cited by Barriere, l’Harmattan, 198), which is quite different. Casts in his plays are racially mixed and, at times, even racially interchangeable.
Miller explains that these plays “depict themes of racism, exile, civil violence, cultural dislocation, violated psyches . . . abjection and submission, the experiences of those human beings on the move today or unable to escape from the chaos of war” (3). Without particularly identifying any specific place, or individual, Kwahulé, whose plays are performed by multi-racial casts, depicts the “contemporary human experience of cruelty, dysfunctional communities, and violence,” as lived by recent immigrants of non-European origin, and thus associated with former colonies, even if this is not the case. Colonization has left its destructive mark on human relations in so many ways.
She goes on to suggest that this is the definition of the contemporary mindscape of what we call “the migrant,” which forces us “to reconsider the status of millions of individuals who have been forced to leave their countries but who are not necessarily formerly colonized people.” And yet, the paradox is that a “new” African writer, such as Kwahulé, who arrived in France over thirty years ago, is almost rarely produced on the stages of the French theatre establishment. In spite of his recognition as a playwright, his many international awards, the fact that translations of his works exist in seventeen languages, and that there have been productions of his work in many parts of the world, the fact he has a Ph.D. in theatre from the Sorbonne, and that his plays have been widely published, his plays are not often produced on the main stages in France.
Indeed, as Miller explains, in France, his works tend to be featured in spaces that promote what the French call “francophone” work, such as the Théâtre du Tarmac or the Lavoir Moderne, located in the area of Paris called La Goutte d’Or, known for its large African population. Or, his work is incorporated into events such as the Festival des Francophonies (in Limoges), where writers from Quebec, the Maghreb, Haiti and the French overseas departments are featured prominently—an elegant way of marginalizing French speaking writers from the European cultural mainstream.
The plays chosen for this volume are Kwahulé’s more recent dramatic forms. They are strongly influenced by the structures of jazz and cinema, or rituals which cross Christian, European and traditional African sources.
Issues appear in them from his Christian upbringing, along with questions of sacrificial rituals, characters (usually women) who are crucified for the good of the community or the notion of being “my brothers’ keeper” (seen in Bintou, Big Shoot), and the biblical story of Cain and Abel, all of which underlie his theatrical works.
As Kwahulé has always asked how it is possible to respect those who are different if one has been imprisoned in the narrow-minded gaze of those whom we have constantly interiorized, it becomes clear that most of his plays are, in fact, structured as performances in front of this specific “gaze.” Audiences become integrated into the play as the on-stage spectators of a “mise en abyme,” a deadly, often ritualized, performance that sends actors back to the viewer’s vision of the situation, without necessarily meaning to impose a psychological reaction on them or resolving any dramatic conflict (Big Shoot, Misterioso). This clearly suggests that Frantz Fanon’s vision is still present in Kwahulé’s self-analysis, where hyper-realistic horror resolves nothing.
The absence of one of Kwahulé’s best-known works, Bintou, and the only one located in a recognizable urban French space, is unfortunate. Miller explained that the original French-language publisher did not give them the rights to reproduce the play, which develops a post-colonial narrative of a strong young girl as the leader of a gang of mixed race young men, vividly illustrating the cultural, generational and gender conflicts of African immigrants with her own family. It also sets out Kwahulé’s basic textual and stage poetics, concepts that are refined and heightened in his other works And yet, the complexity of the human condition suggested in Bintou reveals this magnificent writer’s flowing speech. His words become musical compositions, oratorios, riffs, collective choral expressions and lyrical poetic outpourings that, at times, overpower the individual’s lone expression. Later, monologues by strong female characters will stand out in his work that elevates the speaking voices to the level of mythical individuals opening to a new world order.
I found Miller’s remarks on Kwahulé’s “non-mimetic” avant-garde theatre sources in France useful, though other sources are also rather obvious: the choral structures of Greek theatre that become liturgical texts in his hands; the work of Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones), especially Dutchman, in Blues-S Cat, where the roles of the killers are reversed—an inverted biblical image transformed into a highly theatricalized form of destructive ritual.
The ultimate death ritual and the cannibalization of the young woman in the prison in Misterioso is an excellent example of this spellbinding theatrical endgame which would almost have us believe that there are also links to recent British writers, such as Sara Kane and Mark Ravenhill (where names are not assigned, where lines or particular ways of identifying characters are not indicated, but where the idea is to create a collective emotion or vitality that gives its impulse to the creative process).
In Misterioso, for instance, identities are so loose that assigning names would transform the play into an adaptation with lines following each other without any character identification, almost forcing the translator to structure the play. This is what the translator wanted to avoid. That said, Melancholy of the Barbarians demands a different solution, because there are so many characters that the translator herself finally has to assign names to the characters in order to make the text approachable. Ultimately, though, it is up to a director to make final choices, leading us to ask whether these English versions are really intended for practitioners of the stage or for researchers and students of theatre history.
Particularly thought-provoking in Miller’s essay is the comparison she establishes between Kwahulé’s theatre and that of Bernard Marie Koltès. Miller argues that “the pain contained in Koltès’s recurring themes is offset by the incantatory aspect of his poetic prose with its stops, repetitions, and interweaving of motifs and phrase.” According to Miller, this is another one of the signs that locates Kwahulé’s theatre in “a world that negates the idea of nation, that lives between cultures and that broadens the theatrical definitions of the human.”
This volume clearly highlights Kwahulé’s theatrical gaze and it is the gaze of a true visionary. It would be a wonderful next step to see all of Kwahulé’s plays translated into English and, then, to see these works on all major stages in both languages.
Reviewed by Femi Osofisan** (Nigeria)
This beautifully produced book is a boon to all lovers of theatre, particularly those interested in the development of theatre in francophone Africa in recent years. As the title says, it is a collection of seven plays by the prolific Ivorian-born playwright, Koffi Kwahule, made available to us in English translation.
Such a book is in fact long overdue. Kwahule is a leading figure among a younger generation of talented African writers who began their career in the 1990s, and rapidly came into prominence within the two decades afterwards, but whose work is still little known outside the French and francophone circles in which they operate. All of these writers—comprising figures like Kossi Effoui, Kangni Alem, Caya Makhélé, José Pliya, and so on—were born on the African continent, but went to study in France towards the end of the century, and eventually settled there to establish their glowing artistic careers.
The result of this (re)location in Europe, however, has been paradoxical. While it has empowered the writers considerably in terms of facilities and exposure, it has meant that most of us anglophones do not know them, and those who do, do so only by reputation, rather than through a direct acquaintance with their works. Language of course is the main barrier here—which is why one welcomes this book so enthusiastically—but it is not the language alone. Much of the obstacle comes from the post-Independence politics of our African leaders, who ensure that communication among us and across the national frontiers is still as deliberately primitive as it was in colonial times.
This explains why, for instance, a playwright like Kwahule, who came to the limelight as long ago as 2006, when he won both the Prix Ahmadou Kourouma and the Grand Prix Ivoirien des Lettres, remains an unfamiliar name even in enlightened arts circles in, say, Nigeria or Kenya. And it also explains why, although his plays have been translated, as the editors of the book reveal, into some 15 languages across the continents, none of these languages is African; nor have the performances, which run across an impressive list of countries, been sponsored to any anglophone country in Africa.
The expectation is that this anthology will provide an incentive for the active promotion of his works for the English-speaking public in the future, if only to help fill the appalling gap of knowledge among our peoples.
Another important point to note with these translations is the methodology chosen by the two translators of these texts. They have ensured that these are not just accidental or amateur versions, but products of extensive trials and revisions in workshops and productions, often with the active collaboration of the playwright himself. As Chantal Bilodeau, who translated six of the seven plays, explains in her “Acknowledgements,” translating for the theatre “. . . is a collaborative art. Just like a play cannot be fully realized until it has been staged, the translation of a play is not complete until the words have been spoken out loud and the intentions of the characters actualized in space.” Hence, the plays chosen for the anthology have gone through “an extensive development process that included residencies with the playwright, workshops with actors and directors, and public presentations.” This participatory approach is, to say the least, fortunate, for no greater evidence can be demanded for the authenticity of these translations, both as faithful renderings of the author’s work, and as credible performance texts.
We must therefore give a lot of credit to both the editor of the anthology, Judith Miller, as well as the translator, Chantal Bilodeau, for bringing their personal experience as long-term critics, as well as experienced workers in the theatre. Indeed, there are moments when, but for their considerable knowledge as dramatists, the fluid presentation and structuring of Kwahule’s sometimes erratic and idiosyncratic texts, especially in his more recent works, would have been near impossible. How one wishes that all translations of drama texts could benefit from the same incubatory workshop process!
All the same, the value of the book lies in much more than just this successful presentation of the texts in a credible manner for production by actors and directors. The translations, as I said, are the products of people with substantial experience in translation work themselves, and who therefore understand what their readers would need. So each play is prefaced by a thoughtful essay in which the translator somewhat elaborately explains the background, the context and circumstances of its conception, its production history, as well as certain ambiguous areas of the text about which she has had to make definite, if subjective decisions.
This, of course, is a potential area for controversy, as the translators themselves admit. But each such instance is openly admitted and explained—such, for instance, as when, in order to avoid confusion, they assign certain speeches to particular speakers, where the playwright himself has not done so—but they always confess their intervention with candour, while at the same time admitting the possibility of alternative choices.
In this respect, Miller’s introductory essay, titled “Soundscapes, Mindscapes, and Escape,” is a must-read. Miller, a professor of French, who has been involved with the theatre since her student days, in Paris, in the 1970s, gives us an informed and sympathetic critique that is as much an introduction into the world of Kwahule as well as an informed exposition about the development of drama generally in the francophone world since the time of Aimé Césaire.
As for Chantal Bilodeau, who translated six of the seven texts here, she is not only an established playwright in her own right, (Sila, Hunger, Green Dating, The Motherline), but is also an accomplished translator who has handled the works of Québécois dramatists like Catherine Léger, Etienne Lepage, David Paquet and Sebastien David, as well as the Algerian playwright Mohammed Kacimi.
Having been the director, alongside the playwright, of most of the workshops in which the final scripts are threshed out, she is in a rare, privileged position to talk with authority on these plays, most especially the latter texts where, with the increasing sophistication in Kwahule’s dramaturgy, the old, orthodox architecture of the plays are deliberately discarded, and a more fluid form based on the libretto of jazz music becomes the playwright’s preference.
It is also helpful, finally that the editors chose to present the plays in the chronological sequence in which they were created. This arrangement allows us to follow the trajectory of Kwahule’s development as a playwright. In this regard, it is interesting to note how the quasi-naturalistic dramaturgy of an early play like That Old Black Magic (Cette vieille magie noire, 1993), with its still recognizable psychosomatic tensions, gradually develops into the post-modernist, surrealistic landscape and atmosphere of the later plays such as Brewery (Brasserie, 2008), or Melancholy of the Barbarians (La mélancolie des barbares, 2009), where dream transmutes into nightmare, and terror, sex and violence are increasingly the markers of a post-human world haunted by incommensurable despair.
Kwahule and his friends are surely the heirs of Congolese dramatist Sony Labou Tansi (1947-95), except that, unlike Sony and those others of us who have not fled the homeland, they have become uncomfortable emigrants in the West suggesting that Africa has become just a memory, a nostalgic reference, and not a central presence in their consciousness.
Their contemporaries are the “Afropolitans” of the anglophone world, very innovative, exuberantly adventurous iconoclasts, but cast adrift in a no-man’s land, perennially in search of a utopia they themselves cannot define or that is perhaps unattainable. The socio-political realities of Africa, the stories of social injustice, poverty, corruption, or the failure of our governments, etc., are for them only of tangential concern, or at best useful as fodder for frightening allegories of our world’s descent into hell.
It will certainly be interesting to watch how Kwahule’s dramaturgy develops in the future, especially in the age of May, Macron and LePen, Trump and Putin, Kagame, Ramaphosa, and Buhari. Meanwhile we owe a world of gratitude to both Miller and Bilodeau for this beautiful collection, and their astute (re)interpretations.
*Alvina Ruprecht is professor emerita, Carleton University (Canada) and adjunct professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Ottawa. Founder of the regional section of the theatre critics of the Caribbean she was theatre critics for CBC (Ottawa) for 30 years . Her research and publications concerns the Francophone theatres of the Caribbean. Her latest book is Les Théâtres francophones du Pacifique-sud (Editions Karthala).
**Femi Osofisan is one of Africa’s foremost dramatists as well as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Ibadan. A winner of numerous international prizes including the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Thalia Prize, Osofisan has taught and lectured across Africa as well as in North America, Europe and Asia. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Critical Stages.