Blink and you’ll miss them: black actors remain an anomaly on the French stage, with practically no prominent role models for aspiring performers. This state of affairs raises few eyebrows in the country, but two directors have gone against the grain this season with productions featuring nearly all-black casts. Christian Schiaretti was the first with the excellent Une saison au Congo, and Jean-Louis Martinelli follows this month at Nanterre’s Les Amandiers.
Created last June at the Napoli Teatro Festival in Italy, Une nuit à la présidence is another milestone in Martinelli’s long-standing relationship with Burkina Faso, a former French colony, and local company Traces-Théâtre. The production evolved from improvisation sessions with the 11-strong cast, but the text is credited to Martinelli, with a helping hand from Malian author and activist Aminata Traoré.
Martinelli is adept at exploring complex, controversial issues on stage, but Une nuit is less nuanced than other recent productions of his. It is set in the palace of an imaginary African president (Moussa Sanou), who welcomes a ruthless French emissary. The country may be a “democratic people’s republic”, but Realpolitik is the only game in town. “I need means to deceive my people,” explains Sanou, while the envoy demands “structural adjustments” to satisfy international institutions.
More characters are introduced in broad, crude strokes when five “artists” are called upon to provide entertainment. Between songs, they tell stories of rape, domestic slavery, prostitution and villages demolished to make way for foreign investors. The president’s response is to blame the victims; meanwhile his guest cynically argues that his money will help the prostitute he intends to hire.
Martinelli casts his political net wide, too wide for the play to sustain it. In a comical video interlude, the locals are given Chinese lessons, following a Chinese takeover of the electricity supply. The songs, composed by Ray Léma, lay out a vision of Africa as savaged by neo-colonialism and the strings attached to international aid, yet ultimately fighting a common enemy with Europe: financial institutions. “Refuse the help that doesn’t help you do without help,” the five singers tell us, before moving on to another chorus: “The debt is foreign to us, so we can’t pay it.” It’s a stirring invitation to rebel against the world order, but one laden with oversimplification.
The production is Martinelli’s swan song in Nanterre: against the city’s advice, the government declined to renew his contract last season as part of a larger review of appointments to the helm of publicly funded theatres, with an eye to nurturing a new generation of directors. This season has been one of transition with his successors, Philippe Quesne and Nathalie Vimeux. Despite its shortcomings, Une nuit points to the legacy of inclusiveness and provocative debate they’re inheriting; let’s hope they will build on it.