Chantal Bilodeau and Lucie Tiberghien Discuss 'That Old Black Magic' by Kofi Kwahule
On March 19 2012, the New York Theater Workshop presented a staging of the play That Old Black Magic by the French-African playwright Koffi Kwahulé. At the event, French Culture interviewed Chantal Bilodeau, a frequent translator of Koffi Kwahulé’s plays, and Lucie Tiberghien, director of That Old Black Magic.
French Culture: How did you first discover Koffi’s plays and begin working with him?
Chantal Bilodeau: I discovered Koffi about 10 years ago. I was interested in translating African playwrights into English because those voices were not being heard in the U.S. at that time (and sadly, that hasn’t changed much). I had just moved to New York and didn’t know a lot of people. But I had gotten involved with the Lark Play Development Center and when I talked to them about translating African playwrights, they encouraged me to pursue the idea. So I started trolling the Internet in search of potential plays to translate. I was able to get in touch with a few African playwrights who sent me their plays and recommended other African playwrights. Eventually, that’s how I got to Koffi. I think he sent me three or four plays and when I read them, I knew immediately that I wanted to translate him. I then went back to the Lark and together we designed a translation residency (the first of many) where we invited Koffi to New York to work with me on his plays ‘Jaz’ and ‘Big Shoot’. As it turns out, not only did I like the plays but I also got on very well with the playwright. So two translations turned into seven translations and here we are, ten years later and we’re still working together.
FC: As a native of Quebec, you have experience of living between two languages and two cultures. Does that contribute to your interest in a “Francophone” writer such as Koffi?
CB: Yes. Because I live between two cultures and two languages, and entertain a love affair with both, I feel compelled to want to introduce my two lovers to each other; that’s why I do translation. I long for both sides to see and understand what I love and admire in the other. Also, perhaps because I come from a minority culture—French-Canadians representing slightly less than 20% of the population of Canada—I naturally gravitate towards writers who deal with issues of identity and independence, and for whom language is not a given.
FC: What is it in Koffi Kwahulé’s writing that appeals to an American audience?
CB: Koffi is known for his jazz aesthetic. From the construction of his plays and characters (or perhaps I should call them "voices" because they are not characters in the sense we usually understand them), to the musicality of his dialogue, his work is always in dialogue with jazz—that most quintessentially American art form. So at least formally, his work is always in dialogue with America. Most of Koffi’s plays are also reflections on, or explorations of, the concept of identity—how it is defined, who defines it and what the consequences of having one’s identity stolen or subjugated are. This is also a jazz theme—jazz’s very origins take us back to the African slaves who created this music to celebrate and express identities that were otherwise being violently repressed. So formally as much as thematically, Koffi’s work is very much engaged with American history and culture. In fact, several of his plays make direct references to America: ‘That Old Black Magic’ takes place in New York, ‘Big Shoo’ has a monologue about the seductive nature of New York, ‘Misterioso-911’ reflects on 9/11, one of the characters in ‘Bintou’ is obsessed with Brian DePalma’s Scarface.
FC: What limits (cultural or linguistic) do you experience when translating Koffi’s plays? (In ‘Big Shoot’ for example, Stan’s hobby in your translation is French.)
CB: I don’t know that I would talk about limits but I would say that every play presents challenges that require creative solutions. In ‘Bintou’, for example, the teenagers use a language that suggests slang. In the English translation, since it is impossible to use slang (which is inherently local) without immediately setting the play in a specific location, I had to make a choice. In the French version, although it is never said, the characters are clearly from a European country. To keep that European flavor in English, I tried to give the teenagers a language that has the rhythm and flavor of American slang yet is not so specific as to locate the action of the play in an American City. Another challenge was trying to replicate a certain rhythmic pattern which is present in ‘Misterioso-119’ and, to a lesser extent, in ‘Blue-S-cat’. In French the pattern appears every time the word "que" is used. In English, "que" can become "that," "because," or sometimes it is just not needed in the sentence. In order to make the pattern clear, I added indications in the text that tell the actors where the rhythmic break should happen. I also slightly shifted its location sometimes in order to align it more closely with the rhythm of English speech.
FC: In an interview, Koffi Kwahulé said: « En France, dans certains milieux, on me dit : ’ Koffi, ce que tu fais, c’est très Américain. » Et aux Etats-Unis, on m’a dit une fois : ’ Vous savez, ce qui nous plaît dans votre travail, c’est qu’il est très Européen. ’ J’aime cette anecdote qui veut dire que ce que les gens ne reconnaissent pas, c’est ce qui est différent chez celui d’en face. »
"In France, some people tell me: ‘Koffi, what you do is very American.’ In the United States I was once told: ’You know, what we like about your work is that it’s very European.’ I like this anecdote which says that what people don’t recognize what is different about people."
What do you think Americans see as specifically European in Koffi’s writing ? Conversely, what do you think the French see as specifically American in his work?
CB: I don’t think I would have been able to answer this question when I first started working with Koffi. But now that I know him better, and have observed audiences on either side of the Atlantic encounter his work, I have a better idea of what resonates and what feels foreign. In the U.S., where the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the well-made play dominates the theatre landscape, plays which experiment with form and language tend to feel European. Since in a lot of Koffi’s plays, the narrative is slim—there is just enough of it to provide a backbone onto which other elements can be built—we tend to perceive his work as having a European sensibility. At the same time, Koffi’s writing has a certain velocity and a cinematic quality. Those features, which are influenced by American films and television, are usually associated with the U.S.
FC: How did you get to know Koffi Kwahulé’s work ?
Lucie Tiberghien: Through Chantal Bilodeau, the translator, and the Lark Play Development Center. The Lark Play Development Center has supported all Chantal’s translations of Koffi Kwahulé. As a workshop was planned for That Old Black Magic, and as I was bilingual, they thought of me for the direction.
FC: Was it your first staging a Koffi Kwahulé play?
LT: Yes, but I had seen some former productions of his work, for example ‘Bintou’.
FC: As a French-American stage director, how did you approach the work of an Ivoirian playwright who writes in French?
LT: I am very sensitive to the fact that he has a foot in two cultures, just like me. I feel it is a thing I have in common with him. Also, I am very sensitive to the strength of his writing in French, its poetry, its power. I am also looking for French texts that can move Americans, and talk to them.
FC: Is that the reason why you agreed to stage ‘That Old Black Magic’?
LT: Yes, because that’s the only play of Koffi Kwahulé which is clearly set in the United States, and which raises the issue of interracial conflicts in this country. The fact that it is an Ivoirian playwright, writing in French, who raises those issues, seemed interesting to me with regards to the French-American relations.
FC: Jazz music is a strong American reference in Kwahulé’s work. In your production of “That Old Black Magic”, you used music that was not written into the script. How did the musical references in the text affect your choice and use of music?
LT: First we leaned upon what Koffi himself had said in his text, through stage directions and very precise musical references (quotations of jazz musicians’ names such as Coltrane for instance). The goal for that staging was to explore both text and music, because this is how the text has been written. In the staging we introduced themes of the musicians who were quoted by Koffi. Also my brother, the composer, and I have already worked together on many productions. He leaned a lot upon Koffi’s suggestions but also freely improvised from there.
FC: You also chose to cut certain sections of the play…
LT: We wanted to try to make the play a little bit more accessible to an American audience as we imagined it. The play seemed to us a little too long, too dense. Moreover, the public discussion which took place after the staging of ‘That Old Black Magic’ confirmed our intuition. While the European spectators were thrilled by the staging we had proposed, the American ones were a little bit more critical about it: they found the play too metaphorical.
FC: Why do you think that was?
LT: I think it is due to a certain American theatrical tradition, very different from the one in Europe. In the wake of Tennessee Williams’ plays for instance, American texts are much more realistic, psychological, with a clearly defined dramaturgy and story.
FC: Do you think this might prevent Koffi Kwahulé’s texts from being produced in the United States?
LT: From that perspective it is difficult. That being said, it is not a disincentive for me in any way! I have an intimate and personal will to promote French and Francophone theatre in the United States.
Image: Koffi Kwahulé
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