Nr. 02/2000

West Indies/Africa: a theatrical experience of conflicts through Maryse Conde's plays

Manuel Durand-Barthez (Toulouse)



"Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako" (Oluwemi of Ajumako's death) is a Caribbean play relating the fall of a modern African king whose country is undermined by a permanent state of war. The plot is centred on a conflict between Oluwemi, the king, and a mercenary (whose nationality is African as well). Their quarrel shows the mechanism of classical strategies founded upon war and starvation.

The author of the play, Maryse CONDE, was born 1937 in Guadeloupe and spent many years in western African countries, but also in France and the United States of America.

The play was performed in 1978 in Haiti, under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, at the French cultural centre in Port-au-Prince with Lenau Cadet (Oluwemi), a National Theatre actor prepared to risk involvement in the project, and Manuel Durand-Barthez (France) who "donned" the black skin of the mercenary. Due to the "politically incorrect" nature of the story and the crowds of spectators, it could not be performed more than four times.

About the project

Haiti became independent in 1804. It was the first black republic in the world. In his biography of Toussaint Louverture1, Aimé Césaire has given a good account of the different stages of the slaves rebellion which allowed them to defeat the Napoleonic armies and to acquire a strong feeling of identity.

What might be emphasised first, is the fact that this new nation was founded by a mixture of different ethnic groups issued from West Africa. Even if their region of origin may be roughly defined as the Gulf of Guinea, it is clear that their languages and customs were fundamentally different.

The revolt unified them more or less and they incorporated the language of their enemy to make a new one: Creole. It may be defined as a mixture of Norman patois articulated with an African syntax.

Haitian people thus acquired quite a unique experience in winning the independence of a geographic entity, using the strength of their own roots to apply foreign rules and institutions (the present Haitian civil code is still the Code Napoléon with some minor alterations); so that they adapt and adopt a "countertype" of the dominant model and may better resist further foreign aggressions. If incorporation may be considered in a way as a kind of concession, it may also be used as a vector of immunisation.

Haitian people, anyway, acquired a real "know how" in managing the organisation of a new nation, so that they could help Bolivar himself win the independence of several Latino-American countries. So we could imagine a bridge between West Indian and African continents. The scheme of things is not so simple, of course. The West Indies are not built on the same sociological model. The French West Indies, for instance, are still dominated by the French metropolitan presence: there, we do not find such a strong feeling of identity as in Haiti: it is stifled by second-rate economic advantages which muzzle in a way the will to win, if not the independence, at least the autonomy.

Moreover, the recent example of the former British island of Dominica, deliberately evacuated by the occupying power and then invaded by a new one (the American) to maintain a climate of submission, has also contributed to muzzle the French West Indian population. Haiti, on the contrary, has often been considered - relatively speaking - as fiercely resistant to any kind of foreign influence.

That is why we are interested in studying a literature from that median zone, the French West Indies, especially when it covers different aspects of African civilisation. We spoke about a bridge between the West Indies and Africa: but it is a floating bridge, exposed to the impetuosity of the waves...

Maryse Condé is exactly the type of author whose profile allows us to cross the Ocean. She was born in Guadeloupe in 1937 but spent a lot of time in West Africa. She divided her adolescence between her native island and Paris. After classical literary studies, she went to the Ivory Coast, then to Guinea, Ghana and Senegal. She did not only visit these countries ; she lived and worked there for more than ten years. Back in Paris in the seventies, she taught Caribbean and African literature at the Sorbonne and left France for the Unites States. She taught successively at Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, Virginia and Maryland Universities.

Through such an experience, private as well as public, she became impregnated with four types of "Weltanschauung": West Indian (especially French West Indian), African, metropolitan French and Afro-American.

In each case she learned something positive, but she has never considered anyone of them in particular as a model of reference. She is positively fascinated by Africa but admits the existence of a deep cultural rift between these two geographic entities. For instance, in her novel A Season at Rihata (Une saison à Rihata, 1981)2, she relates the difficulties met by a French West Indian woman who marries a West African man whose family consider her as a descendant of "former slaves uprooted from Africa, who came to resemble the Whites and believe themselves superior to the Africans, their ancestors." (128)

Through Maryse Condé's theatre, especially in her analysis of wars and cultural conflicts, we shall highlight the triangular relation between Haiti, French West Indies and Africa. We shall examine two plays in particular : God gave it to us (Dieu nous l'a donné)3 and Oluwemi of Ajumako's death (Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako)4 which belong to the first period of the author (1972-1973).

Dieudonné is the Christian name (meaning precisely: "given by God") of a young doctor turned out by the University of Paris, who comes back to his French West Indian native island with the intention of bringing revolt and expelling the colonial power from the country.

In fact, he has "a bone to pick with misery" (24). As a student in Paris, he felt despised and thrown back to the misfortune of his origins: he spent "ten years of suffering and humiliation" there (27). The shock of his contact with the so-called metropolitan culture induced a rebellious attitude which is in fact radically different from the initial Haitian revolt for two reasons. First, he considers his compatriots as diminished people : "Three centuries of infamy have emasculated our Negroes (...) Fear is upon them like a wet gag. They die without a fight." (56) The original community of Haitian slaves was physically diminished by maltreatment and tortures. Nowadays the offending inferiority is due to other factors: the weakness provoked by a second-rate white civilisation which acts as "a poison (...) in their vessels" (ibid.). Second, back in his country, Dieudonné realises "that he is not longer able to speak to his people": "I do not know their language any more, their words of happiness or sorrow ! When I open my mouth, people laugh! 'He speaks like a White! He has lived with them for ten years!' And what I have learnt and understood, what I am trying to explain, I can't, I can't." (27)

So, leading the revolt in his former country is a way of ridding himself of his white look. Then, contaminated himself, he wants to eradicate the contamination of his compatriots, trying to transform the association of two negative poles into a positive result. The road will not be easy. He exploits the mythology of the initial rebellion at the dawn of the XIXth century, to revive the spirit of rebellion. But a large rift separates the glorious and authentic history of the first freedom fighters from the dream of the modern social group.

Dieudonné uses an intermediary in order to put his message across more effectively. This middleman is a "quimboiseur", a kind of modern sorcerer, in fact: a witch doctor, whose name is Mendela.

They both live in a remote village: Dieudonné because the chief-town is hostile to him, because he is too much impregnated with the white mentality; Mendela because he killed his wife in the chief-town. Both of them have flown from the city.

Mendela is the instrument of Dieudonné's strategy. He asks the witch-doctor to convene the villagers in a wood, for a ceremony of "maroons", i.e. runaway Negro slaves, evoking the Guinean gods in a kind of voodoo rite.

Dieudonné just needs "ten determined men, to begin." (47) He thinks that the ceremony may attract and convince the hard core of the future resistance. Mendela first laughs but finally accepts as, by doing so, he may reinforce his own power in the community.

Their contract is based upon a swindle. Dieudonné exclaims: "We have been deceived enough by gods; they should serve us now !" (57) In the "Bois Caïman" (Cayman wood: another mythological toponym), the two accomplices will bring the revolt into play. Out of the theatre should emerge the guerilla...

So, Dieudonné first hails the memory of Schoelcher, liberator of the slaves in the French West Indies (48), then Mendela invokes Boukman and Makandal, famous maroon slaves (57).

What is rather disconcerting is that - relatively speaking - Dieudonné and Mendela just act as tour operators. Both of them laugh but finally consider it as a good deal, anyway. Tourists are not French, but their own compatriots. This abrupt and deliberately provocative comparison is made just to show the distance between the original identity problem of the Dominican (or Haitian) slaves in a previous historical context and its distorted reflection one hundred and fifty years later.

The context of the initial revolt is all the more difficult to explain because the black rebellion had only been introduced after a mulatto movement for freedom which was itself the consequence of fruitless negotiations at the metropolitan republican Assembly.

It means that, chronologically, the authentic black uprising took place in Haiti after the mulattos' revolt. The half-caste minority group had opened the way for the oppressed majority. Mulattos were themselves in a "hybrid " situation which may recall Dieudonné's position. Not that the young doctor is a mulatto, but his mentality is objectively (and, willingly or not) impregnated with white "manners".

We can observe, in Dieudonné and Mendela's conjuring, a pale transposition of the former and authentic revolt. But their plot fails for two reasons: the first is superficial and anecdotal. Dieudonné is betrayed by a prostitute whom he despises openly after having tried to manipulate her because she knew a lot of people. One of these, a rich settler she used to see, was informed of the plot and sent hired-killers to murder Dieudonné. The young leader had also tried to outwit Mendela's daughter and such behaviour might have irritated the father and jeopardised their projects.

But the second reason, in fact the real reason for their failure, looks much more directly connected with the basic problem of identity. Yes, people came to the night meeting. But they suspected a hoax. Emilio, the agent of the rich settler who murders Dieudonné, compares the demonstration with a traditional catholic ceremony impregnated with baroque terror: "Basically, you're just like the [Christian] priests whom you pretend to hate" (72). In other words they use a white artifice to achieve their aim.

In fact, the worm is already in the fruit. Emilio insists: "That is your business! All I know is that today, in front of me, you are a doctor, that is to say a Negro from on high (...) What do you want to make us believe? Of course Grand Anse [the village] is not a paradise. But we live there; the smartest people, like me, get out of the mess. Other can't be helped!" (71)

Dieudonné : "given by God": your country is a gift of God, just as your mother is. The young doctor says: "A mother is like a country; you can't discuss them. You take them as a whole..." (24) But this kind of resignation is barely tolerated by Maryse Condé. She declares: "I had left the West Indies at the age of sixteen and I came back, for the first time, nineteen years later. It is clear that I had then a lot of things to say about the opposition to progress, the stagnation of the country, the eternal political plots..." 5 (56) And then: "I immediately wanted to leave" (40) It is difficult for the writer to find an anchor, between her native West Indies, the French territory, West Africa and Northern America. The personal conflict is permanent, and reflected in the confrontations of her other novels and plays.

Oluwemi of Ajumako's death (Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako - 1973) was inspired by the ritual suicide of a Nigerian traditional chief. The event took place when Maryse Condé lived in Ghana. A chief had refused to commit suicide after having reigned for twenty years; the tradition imposed such an act, but he could not accept this, finding it inconceivable in a modern country. People discussed and debated a lot about his refusal and, meanwhile, the chief died of a mysterious sickness. Had the gods condemned him?

Oluwemi is a traditional African king exercising his symbolic rights on a more or less autonomous district, in a corrupt modern republic, where power, unsurprisingly, is dictatorial and perverted by the white civilisation.

The king refuses ritual suicide. A minister suggests that the rite may be officially abolished (according to white-inspired laws) but his district would lose its autonomy and would be controlled directly by the central government.

Oluwemi wants to keep his territory as a self-governing zone, "protected from the cupidity of the Whites" and he dismisses the minister, "this bastard, as a dog" (28). But he still wants to save his skin and kills a slave (because slavery is still in use) instead of himself and flees.

Afterwards, people come to plunder his tomb. They see first that the jewels are missing (Oluwemi had taken them away) and, above all, that the corpse is not Oluwemi's.

In fact, the tradition was a social cement and a factor of stability. Gods act as a buffer between the people and the modern administration. If the pact is broken, then the modern power takes control.

The crowd accuses Oluwemi's son and, suddenly, the inadequacy of modern structures (until then tolerated) becomes obvious: "People said that you did not build schools, children had to walk with their books and their ink pots on their heads up to Kulugunu... That you built neither hospitals nor health centres, and that during the last epidemic of measles, 150 little corpses were buried!" (16)

So, paradoxically, the rejection of the tradition is the last straw. In fact, people jump out of the frying pan into the fire. They abandon a traditional framework, with a chief who abuses his power (he also raped the women when he wished) and a lack of basic infrastructures, but which is underpinned by a strong feeling of identity guaranteed by the gods. Of course, they may not believe totally in these gods, but the gods are the institutional wall which protects them from another world in which they are artificially included: the modern republic. They now fall into the hands of a corrupt white-inspired administration.

Oluwemi has fled with his son, Ange, and his girl friend, Séfira. Suddenly , their hiding-place is disturbed by a strange person: the "Foreigner" (L'Etranger), a mercenary, a deserter. He is not a White, he is African, just as Oluwemi and his family are. But he is a foreigner in that he looks like an outsider.

The Foreigner does not believe in tradition and he rejects the pseudo-republic. He shows Oluwemi that his refusal to commit suicide was simply proof of his humanity: "Others have done the same thing. Who knows, perhaps all the others?! You are just the most honest of the lot, because you have scruples which the others dismissed !" (32)

Little by little, Oluwemi comes to understand progressively a lot of things: first, "Gods are dried gombo" (35), an African way of saying that religion is irrational... We meet Dieudonné again. Second, the Whites arm the Blacks to fight against the Blacks. That is why the disillusioned mercenary became a deserter. The colonists have mapped out a border to divide brother from brother and reinforce their power. "... Flee to our Watu cousins' country, on the other side of the river. A frontier separates us, which the Whites have traced. But we speak the same language...." (17)

The "Foreigner" helps Oluwemi find his own way: he must come back and assume his suicide. He must prove that he lives in perfect harmony with himself. He should re-establish his good name, his virility and his honour. The "Foreigner" follows him up to the end; as a deserter, he knows that he may be condemned himself, but nevertheless, both of them must overcome the temptation of mediocrity.

In fact, Maryse Condé shows in this narrative the same uneasy feeling as in the earlier play. The French West Indies and Africa suffer from the same alienation; the form is naturally quite different, but basically the problem of identity remains the same.

So the king's son and the deserter imagine a third way: America. But an America "without slaves... without Negroes or Negro-spirituals... without Vietnam or bombs... without Nixon or Kennedy!" (53) Unfortunately, they are drunk when they speak. It means that the third way is also a cul-de-sac.

That is why Maryse Condé has more or less chosen a wandering life, travelling regularly between these three continents: West Indies, Africa and America.

At the parting of these ways: Haiti. Despite a deep feeling of national identity, this country is torn: France, Spain, United States... ; but anyway, fundamentally, its pedestal is the initial slaves rebellion. Therefore Haiti is answerable to nobody.

I had the opportunity to live there in 1977-78 and work at the French cultural Institute. At that time, the country was dominated by the Duvalier dictatorship led by "Baby Doc", son of Doctor François Duvalier, founder of that regime in 1958. Jean-Claude Duvalier succeeded him in 1971.

Graham Greene has described Dr. Duvalier's regime in his famous novel The Comedians some characters of which were still on the scene in the late seventies. Dr. Duvalier was a legendary bloodthirsty brute who took power after having been elected as the supporter of "Noirisme" (which we could translate roughly by: "Blackism"), a radical doctrine invented to fight the preceding mulatto power. He was initially known as a doctor who had eradicated a widespread tropical sickness: the pian. He became progressively paranoiac and highly dangerous. His country was - and still is, unfortunately - reduced to desperate poverty, in a climax of fear and stagnation.

One of his keys to power was his assimilation with the voodoo pantheon. Self-declared President for life, he was believed to be inspired by God. It is important to emphasise the relationship between Duvalier and the Papal Nuncio. It is of course always difficult to evaluate such a diplomatic relationship and we should not jump to conclusions. We should nevertheless mention the concordat which allowed the President to manage the national church. So the religious support for the regime, traditional (voodoo) as well as institutional, was quite important, even if a new progressive church was to appear later, as we shall see.

Duvalier's situation was roughly comparable with Oluwemi's: in fact, he was stronger than our African petty king, because even the Americans had difficulty in overthrowing François Duvalier. His backward country was a real fortress, as hostile to American capitalism (unlike its Dominican neighbour) as to Castro's communism.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, the son, was considered spineless. But his staff was strong enough to keep intact his father's police state. He had married a mulatto, a representative of the small economic elite. After 1975, he had to accept the political conditions imposed by the international institutions to obtain aid. So, the President for life had to make some small concessions.

It is precisely in these circumstances that several Haitian friends and I, decided to perform a play the message of which could bring some light in the darkness. The time was right. Maryse Condé's reputation was perfectly adapted to such a project. The symbolic character of Oluwemi, the place (Africa), the corrupt republic, the West Indian original identity of the author: all this constituted an ideal background. Moreover, the fairly neutral ground of the French Institute could cover an operation consecrating a French West Indian writer. Furthermore, the language of the text was French, spoken fluently by a minority of the population, mainly by Haitian scholars and intellectuals who used to visit the Institute regularly (essentially because of the Public Library). Nevertheless, offering such a text to a public audience, in these times of permanent censorship, was a real positive movement. Theatre is a form of expression which can express on the stage the deepest feelings of a community. Transposing these feelings to the original continent of their ancestors acts as a catalysis.

Nevertheless, my Haitian protagonists observed that they could hardly identify themselves with the African mind. They really had to read about it and invent a form of behaviour adapted to the circumstances. Even if they did not obviously contest the African roots, the concept of a specific new nation, defined and shaped by the original community of Dominican slaves, was strong enough to prevent any hasty assimilation. The African symbolic transposition gives also more protection from the censorship. Of course, an expression such as "President for life", uttered by the "Foreigner", had to be omitted ; but in general, the text did not suffer too many deletions.

As it was a common project, the cement of which was this text, we gave the group a meaningful name : Collectif Théâtre Africain (African Theatre Collective). The main character, Oluwemi, was played by Lenau Cadet, a member of the National Theatre, who was prepared to risk involvement in such an adventure. His presence was an indispensable label for the viability of the project.

We decided that I would play the "Foreigner", whose name was rather well adapted to my position... In order to adapt it totally, I had to assume a real physical "mimesis". My skin should definitely change; so would my mind. That mutation of my identity had to stay more or less hidden. The rumour circulated, saying that a Guadeloupean comedian would play the part of the "Foreigner"; nothing more. Obviously, that could help me to exorcise for a while a kind of "petite bourgeoise" culpability, due to my original French identity, linked to the former colonisation.

Jean-Eddy Péan, the producer, worked at the French Institute, but was also a broadcaster at Radio Soleil (Sun Radio), the progressive radio program of Father Aristide, future President of Haiti. He was representative of the new church, based on the Brazilian or the Salvadorian models, and barely tolerated by the authorities. The censorship was not really tolerant with the news programs (as a matter of fact, they operated rather a self-censorship).

The production was first announced on the radio (half a dozen local FM radios, such as Radio Soleil, were flourishing at the time). Second, the producer and I organised a campaign of information in the high and secondary schools of Port-au-Prince. There were very few written traces of the announcement, probably due to an excess of precaution.

Globally, such an experience makes more evident the tacit and repressed expression of the identity problem. People are cut off at different levels from their immediate and more distant roots, from their language and their history. We had to accept internal frictions all through the five months period of rehearsal.

Due to the crowds of spectators and the "politically incorrect" aspect of the text, the French Institute considered that we should not give more than four performances (April 1978).

As already mentioned, that play was an example of these opportunities of rather free expression occasionally tolerated by the power in the late seventies. In fact, such opportunities allowed the local administration to identify suspect people. In 1980, the level of repression was very brutal. A lot of intellectuals were arrested, some were murdered ; those who were lucky were able to flee.

(English version rev. by Eugene McAller)



1 Toussaint Louverture : la Révolution française et le problème colonial. Paris : Présence africaine, 1981

2 A Season in Rihata, Richard Philcox, transl. London: Heinemann, 1988 ; Une Saison à Rihata. Paris: Laffont, 1981

3 Dieu nous l'a donné. Paris: Pierre-Jean Oswald, 1972

4 Mort d'Oluwémi d'Ajumako. Paris: Pierre-Jean Oswald, 1973

5 Pfaff, Françoise. Entretiens avec Maryse Condé. Paris: Karthala, 1993. Engl. transl.: Conversations with Maryse Condé (with bibliogr). Lincoln: U. of Nebraska Press, 1996.


Nr. 02/2000

Webmaster: Peter Horn    |    last change 13.9.2000