Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bakary Sangaré Brings Color to the Comédie Française

The 323-year old Comédie Française – the most prestigious of French theaters – opened membership of its permanent troupe to a black man almost nine years ago when it elected Bakary Sangaré, a Malian of considerable reputation on stage and screen, to be a member of its permanent troupe. On September 1, 2002, Sangaré was the 673rd person to be elected to the troupe.
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Bakary Sangaré
© Christophe Reynaud de Lage

Before joining the troupe, Sangaré studied theater at the National School of the Arts and Theater Techniques in Paris, where he fulfilled an apprenticeship under the supervision of Marcel Bozonnet during the late 1980s. It is Bozonnet who, as director of the theater troupe, submitted Sangaré’s name for election to the Comédie Française cast.

Sangaré has played Shakespearean roles such as Ariel (1989) and Hamlet (1996) on the French stage under the direction of Britain’s Peter Brooks. He performed in a theatrical rendition of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) at the TILF in 1993, and staged his own production of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in 2000 – 2002. And he starred in a critically acclaimed African film entitled Samba Traore in 1992.

Sangaré’s debut at the Comédie Française was coupled with another historic event – for the first time in its history, the troupe produced a play written by an African playwright. Papa Doit Manger (Papa Must Eat), by Franco-Senegalese Marie NDiaye, made its debut in the Salle Richelieu of the revered theater on February 22, 2003. The story centers around the return of a wayward African man to his French wife and two metisse daughters after a 10-year absence, and the havoc that it wreaks on the household. Sangaré played the glib, apparently contrite Papa, and delivered a masterful performance in his first role as a member of the Comédie Française. Papa Doit Manger is also the first play performed at the Comédie Française to be written by a woman.

While Sangaré is the first African to be admitted to the Comédie Française, he is not the first black person. In 1967, Jacques Maline (aka Georges Aminel, whose father was from Martinique) was elected to the troupe. He was with the theater for only five years – he resigned in 1972 after the Comédie Française was strongly criticized for having him portray Sophocles’ Oedipus. The theater’s director replaced him in the role with the promise that he would be asked to play Othello at a later time.

At the time of his acceptance to the troupe, the theater expressed its commitment to have Sangaré play roles that are not based on racial personifications. This is significant because the Comédie Française produces almost exclusively classical French works, very few of which portray black characters. It has lived up to this commitment – to date Sangaré has played the Lion in Fables de La Fontaine, Organ in Molière’s Tartuffe, Antione Vitez in Conversations avec Antoine Vitez, and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s La Nuit des Rois (The Twelvth Night). In another bold move by the Comédie Française to modernize and become more interdisciplinary, the theater cast Sangaré to play Titus in the Jean Racine play Berenice – which it commissioned from a Congolese choreographer.

Sangaré was fervent admirer of Martinican poet, playright, and statesman Aimé Césaire. He and two other members of the Comédie Française paid homage to Césaire at the ceremony organized by the Assemblée Nationale after Césaire’s death in 2008.

Bakary Sangaré, Mariann Mathéus, Muriel Mayette, and Pierre Vial pay tribute to Aimé Césaire
© Assemblée Nationale

Sangaré has stated his belief that other blacks will follow him and take their place on this stage. “If theater is a mirror of society, then necessarily, one day all the faces of our mosaic society can be reflected there,” he said.


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