"French and Yet Never French Enough"
Caribbean Playwrights Challenge the Monolith of French Identity
Any translator worth their salt can tell you the real work of translation is not the literal (painstaking!) rendering of one language into another, but instead the necessary accompanying cultural translation that carries the meaning of the work. This challenge is all the more obvious when the text is a theatrical one, requiring the translator to become not only dramaturg for the script, but also, often, devoted advocate of and interpreter for the playwright—a duty that becomes vitally political when the writers are members of a marginalized community.
The sacred relationship between translator and playwright was put valiantly on display this past December, when CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center welcomed francophones, francophiles, and theatre folks from around the world to witness staged readings of six French Caribbean plays in English translation and converse about the importance of global theatre exchange. All of this was part of the very first Actions Caribéennes Théâtrales Festival (Caribbean Theatre Project), co-curated by Stéphanie Bérard with Frank Hentschker. Creating space for francophone Caribbean stories, which are drastically underrepresented in the dissemination of French culture due to the forces of colonialism and white supremacy—despite the significant historical relationship between these geographical bodies—was central to the festival’s mission.
Jean-René Lemoine, a playwright whose work L’Adoration/Adoration was at the festival, explained the motivation behind his writing: “It’s the complexity of alterity that interests me. How all the languages, all the travels, all the exiles that make me what I am will perhaps be able to resonate within the imagination of those who hear the play.” This sentiment was shared by many of the Caribbean artists present at the festival. Eager to interrogate the specific complexity of their shared cultural identity—French and yet never French enough—these Caribbean artists strive to honor their heritage while participating in the marketplace and tradition of Western theatre.
As a white American woman who spends a fair amount of time in the interstitial space between French and English, France and the United States, I am familiar with the discomfort of not being understood, and the innumerable ways we humans attempt to understand. (Earlier this year, I tried to translate the concept of an intimacy director to a group of French playwrights, who were baffled by what they perceived to be the American litigious hypersensitivity of the role.) I take comfort in the idea that theatre is one way we can get closer to mutual understanding, by tapping into the universality of specific human experience.
Theatre is one way we can get closer to mutual understanding, by tapping into the universality of specific human experience
This universality was a recurring theme in the conversations on and off stage at the Caribbean Theatre Project. During the Caribbean Theatre on the International Stage panel, Luc Saint-Eloy, playwright of Trottoir chagrin/Street Sad, said: “Through theatre, I understood part of myself was amputated. I discovered my roots.” Saint-Eloy not only found role models through reading about his predecessors’ experience, but also validation of his non-linear identity as a French man of color who was born in Djibouti and raised in Guadeloupe, has lived in Paris since 1975, and yet is still rarely deemed a “French” theatremaker but rather a Caribbean one. This was something Daniely Francisque, playwright of Ladjable/She-Devil, also felt. During the opening panel, titled Women in/and Caribbean Theatre, Francisque said that after a lifetime lack of representation on stage, when she finally began writing her own plays, she wanted to scream who she was.
Of course, this Brechtian distancing—engaging with topics on a conscious rather than subconscious level, a pillar of the Caribbean diasporic people’s experience—offers a perpetual opportunity for critical examination of one’s own culture. All seven of the playwrights present at the conference (as well as several directors, other invited panelists, and audience members) spoke about the ways in which their work has been informed by circulating between the Francophone West Indies and mainland France. Given the premise of the project, all six of the plays were written in French, the colonizer’s language, with infusions of Creole in Francisque and Guy Régis Junior’s pieces. Francisque said Ladjable/She-Devil was written in “her” French, inspired by traditional storytellers who take possession of the colonial language and spin it for their own designs.
Oceana James, a Black American playwright originally born and raised in St. Croix, who was a panelist at the conference, reminded the audience that the major bullet points in Caribbean migration are the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, race, and racism. She dispelled the idea of Caribbean insularity, speaking of the frequency of inter-Caribbean migration as islanders move for work, and the “Caribbean artists in exile” stereotype, raising the question of whether it was “selling out” not to live at home in the Caribbean. And yet she feels her circulation between New York and St. Croix has informed her voice and her artistry, and her understanding of her theatrical work and its impact is informed by her ability to present it in these divergent contexts. Saint-Eloy concurred, saying, “The longer I live in Paris, the more I know where I came from,” and that he sees theatre as a way of interrogating memory. Theatre not only allows us to investigate our identity, but to define ourselves.
The myth of universal French existence devalues individual experience and prevents diverse representation of the French population in popular media.
However, contemporary French political discourse is not kind to communautarisme (ethnic identity politics). While American progressive discourse centers around equity, diversity, and inclusion, President Macron said just this past October, “Communautarisme isn’t terrorism,” as he refused to take a stance on whether or not it was appropriate for school chaperones to wear their hijab on field trips. French liberalism insists on a unified vision of Frenchness, one that remains white, socialist, and middle class, despite the fact that French citizens of color live in France and in the French-administered territories outside the European continent, mostly relics of colonial France, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Gaël Octavia, playwright of Une vie familiale/Family, said in an interview, “As a Martinican, it’s completely normal to be both French and Martinican. It’s not until I got to France that I understood I wasn’t French.” By rejecting the inherent value of organizing around a shared core component of identity, the myth of universal French existence devalues individual experience and prevents diverse representation of the French population in popular media. As Francisque said, “We don’t see ourselves on French screens or stages. We’re systematically on the side. There is one way to be French.” And: “It’s difficult to be different in France. It’s difficult to be Black and French, in France.” She says it is a struggle to stand up and say, “I have specific things to say!” Combatting this underrepresentation was a driving force behind the work of many of those in attendance.
Bérard was intentional in selecting works for the festival by an equal number of men and women playwrights (actually four women and three men, as one play, Le jour où mon père ma tué/The Day My Father Killed Me was co-written by two women, Charlotte Boimare and Magali Solignat), from three Francophone Caribbean nations (Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti). Feminist discourse was alive and well in the selection of plays and their central themes. Five of the six translators were women (myself included), as were four of the six directors of the staged readings. There was much discussion of the archetypical “poto mitan” Caribbean woman, who is expected to selflessly shoulder the responsibility for everyone around her.
This consciousness surrounding representation was pervasive throughout the festival, starting with the Women in/and Caribbean Theatre panel, and was reflected in several questions during talkbacks about playwrights’ casting specifications and the varying receptions of the plays presented, depending on where they were staged. Candace Thompson-Zachery, the festival’s external artistic director, raised the notion of “legibility,” especially for work that’s non-Eurocentric, as a recurring conversation in her circles. She reported constantly having to respond to questions along the lines of, “Is your project to make your work legible to ‘mainstream’ audiences?” And, “Do you make work that you feel will translate well to a broader audience, or do you make work specifically for Caribbean audiences to engage with?”
Several playwrights expressed frustration in trying to garner French support for productions of their work, often being pigeonholed by their Caribbean identity.
Works in translation beg the question: “For whom are we telling these stories?” Some playwrights, such as Francisque, were vocal about their intent to fill the silence and to capture and transmit their culture’s folklore, including the story of the “she-devil” recounted in her play. Solignat spoke about her experience as an actor playing a négropolitaine (a negatively connotated word for a Black person born in mainland France) who is viewed with a certain disdain when they visit France’s overseas territories. Several playwrights expressed frustration in trying to garner French support for productions of their work, often being pigeonholed by their Caribbean identity.
The plays themselves ranged from the deeply intimate to the epic and folkloric. Trottoir chagrin/Street Sad told the “impossible love story” of a prostitute and a stalker, and L’Adoration/Adoration chronicled an obsessive love affair. Une vie familiale/Family peeled back the layers of secrecy and deception in a seemingly “normal” nuclear family, and Le jour où mon père m’a tué/The Day My Father Killed Me told the true story of a Guadeloupian radio DJ who murdered his son on the eve of his son’s eighteenth birthday. De toute la terre le grand effarement/And the Whole World Quakes presented a Godot-esque post-apocalyptic take on the aftermath of Haiti’s 2008 earthquake, and Ladjable/She-Devil spun a contemporary take on a traditional folk tale about a mythic seductress. Every play was laced with social commentary and violence, laying bare the playwrights’ grappling with pressing questions of identity, alterity, and belonging.
It does not feel like an exaggeration to say most of what I’ve learned about the world, I’ve learned through stories. What’s more, translation has strengthened my ability to constantly hold two (or more) simultaneous, differing realities in my head. As ardently as the playwrights and other Caribbean artists assembled at the Actions Caribéennes Théâtrales Festival wanted to dispel the white colonialist myth of their home as nothing more than beaches and good times, they also wanted to share the specificity of their experience and cultural context, as well as their families, traditions, language, music, and stories. Plays such as the ones presented in the Caribbean Theatre Project allow artists and audiences alike to share in the messy, collaborative, perfectly imperfect exercise of broadening our perspectives and listening for understanding, in languages both familiar and foreign.