Widening his own definition of Africanity to encompass reflection on humanity without the constraints of a universality ineffective in questioning the world would seem to be the programme set by the playwright José Pliya, son of Beninese playwright Jean Pliya. Language is therefore central to his work. José Pliya’s multicultural background has contributed to this choice.
Do you think of yourself as an author between worlds? Does this make any sense to you?
I think of myself more as an author between several worlds! Two is not enough to cover my background, my history. I am of Beninese origin, of French nationality, my culture is that of a French speaker, I have affinities with Spanish-speaking cultures, have lived in English-speaking countries my story is made up of all these paths which have all made my experience richer. They widen my universe, my imagination and my language as an author. I would define myself more as an author of the « tout-monde » [every-world], as Glissant used to say. I like this expression because it also implies strong roots, which are, of course, the geography of my language – the language that I work with, that I try to challenge at all times. Because this seems to be the only way of questioning the world, of engaging it, of telling it. I write from between multiple worlds, rather than just two.
What is the work that you do with language?
It’s all a matter of chemistry. I don’t work like a grammarian or a lexicologist. I work like a musician. Each time I have a play to write, I try to find the right voice, the right music for the characters. How does this character talk? What kind of voice do they have? What’s their music? I can have developed the entire structure of the play and still be stuck until I’ve found the right music. The music can come from an intonation, like that of the Fon language, for example. This is the case for Complexe de Thénardier. For that play, I had the story I wanted to tell, the canvas was ready. I knew where I was going but I wasn’t getting anywhere. The first draft just didn’t work. All the elements were there but my inner judge was telling me that there was something wrong. And that something was very much the music. The mother was out of tune. Then something clicked when I talked to my mother on the phone one day. Because my mother greatly influenced the character in Complexe de Thénardier. My mother talked to me in Fon and suddenly it dawned on me of course, that was it! I was struggling because I had written the character in French when it was Fon that she really spoke. So my job was then to translate the musicality of the Fon language into French in order to be able to write the character.
Another example of this is Parabole. This play could be seen as a follow-up to the parable of the prodigal child. I thought the characters spoke Arabic. I could hear the Arabic language loud and clear. I don’t speak Arabic but I threw myself into the music of Arabic. In the end, this music fluctuates according to the subject and the intimate need to tell the music of a given character.
The last play that I wrote, Nous étions assis sur le rivage du monde was commissioned by the national theatre in Fort-de-France, Martinique. It’s in Creole. I wanted to talk about the search for identity it’s a big issue in the French Antilles and I needed the musicality of the Creole language. It was a fairly fast job because I’m surrounded by it in Martinique. I started out with this unusual language to try and restore it. In fact, spectators are sometimes surprised by the change in style. But I don’t present myself as being someone with a single language or style, but rather as someone searching for the right language for the right story.
How would you define your relationship with the theatre?
My relationship with the theatre is essentially defined by my relationship with language. I am a textual fundamentalist. I uphold the idea that theatre can be experimental, can be a mix of genres. But what makes the theatre, which is an ancient genre – once thought threatened by new media forms – able to stand the test of time and still stand strong today, is the fact that it relies on the text. I define my relationship with the theatre first and foremost through the text. And I favour language to tell the world. I strongly believe in stories. These are the same stories that humanity has been telling since ancient Greece. But we think that because the Greeks said everything we don’t need stories any more. That’s wrong. Even if we just tell the same stories over again, people need stories. « What does it talk about? » That’s the question you hear most often. And it’s hard to say « nothing ». We have to tell stories, but they have to be like the stories that have already been told. Sometimes our elders told them beautifully, like Sophocles. In my opinion it’s language that makes the difference. The thing that I can bring that’s original is my language, my vision of the world through my language. There’s nothing new about Le Complexe de Thénardier as far as the story’s concerned. In terms of the master-slave relationship, there have been some wonderful tales. But what makes this story unusual is the language that I use.
You’re from a new generation of writers. What, in your opinion, makes you different from your elders, and in particular your father?
What fundamentally distinguishes me from my father is that my father had desire to make the arts educational and useful. For him, you couldn’t simply be involved in a genre whatever genre that might be for no reason. He is very concerned about Benin and its people. When he had his first success with Secrétaire particulière and Kondo le requin, he set about translating plays into Fon so that a wider Beninese public would have access to his works. And the Beninese people are grateful to him for that. The intellectual who didn’t forget the common people. His was therefore an efficient theatre, in the tradition of the great classics he learned from. He’s not worried about language. He doesn’t question form. He’s interested in the message. What can the play contribute to raise awareness and educate young people? His theatre is committed to social issues. I, on the other hand, did away with my illusions. Or maybe never had any illusions anyway. In the end, my writing is selfish. I write for my personal neuroses, for my inner world. It’s a challenge against the evil and the violence that call out to me. I use my tool as a craftsman who works and reworks the object they are creating. What matters to me is that I say what I have to say as best I can and it’s a nice bonus if other people can relate to it in some way.
How would you define your approach? Where do you position yourself in the mill of new generation authors?
My relationship with previous writings wasn’t conflictual. On the contrary, I have literally integrated other writings. I have proceeded very much by imitation. There are some authors that I greatly admire and I said to myself that I was going to work « like » them rather than « against » them. Pirandello was my model for Concours de circonstance. I didn’t imitate him stylistically or linguistically but rather thematically. I was fascinated by how he had the theatre ghosts intervene, how he succeeded in integrating the spirit world, it’s something that is almost African. Other writers have also greatly inspired me, like Claudel, Racine, Koltès. I particularly admire them because of the way they work with language.
Following Le Complexe de Thénardier, your plays tend more towards a Western universality. Is it your ambition to be universal?
Trying to make a play universal is a snare. It’s not that simple. After Complexe de Thénardier, Jean-Clude Grumberg paid me a very touching complement in confiding that he thought I had managed to do what he hadn’t succeeded in doing with this plays that is, go beyond the intimate tragedy of the holocaust, which some people find irritating because they feel that’s all that’s ever talked about, to find a continuum in all human suffering. Nobody has a monopoly on pain and horror. What really interests me is a fundamental interrogation of the evil in man, regardless of colour and background. When I wrote Une famille ordinaire, which tells the story of a German family from Hamburg that ends up getting involved in the massacres, some people reacted extremely violently. Some said that an African didn’t have the right to talk about the holocaust, because it didn’t affect us, because it’s not our history. Other people said, « You can’t understand this pain. Maybe we could understand if you’d written about Rwanda, but … »
I find it all quite funny really. Who has the right to talk about what? I don’t lay claim to the right to talk about a given colour or a given country, but simply about being human, about humans. My theatre reflects my personal vision of the world. Each story requires a certain vision and a particular cast. The latest example of this is Nous étions assis sur le rivage du monde. I wanted to treat a specifically Antillian subject, but the same issues come up in Quebec where they’re also searching for their identity. We started out with the idea that the cast would be largely composed of actors from the French overseas territories and African Antillian diaspora. It was just an idea. However, this idea had absolutely no impact on the way I wrote my characters and their conflicts. In the end, when the play was read, it was absolutely fascinating to see the different reactions. At no time do the characters make an issue of their colour. However, in the ensuing debate, people asked a lot of questions. The text never talks about the colour of the character’s skin. I rarely write characters with a given colour in mind, and the same goes for their origins. I write characters who live out a conflict. Le masque de Sika was directed by Tola Koukoui and the Martial brothers – black African and Antillian actors then re-staged by the FITHEB with an entirely white cast. And that suits me very well. I don’t write for skin colour, I write for the theatre!
So, where do you situate Africanity in your theatre?
When I wanted to write Une famille ordinaire, I came across the work of a Jewish historian from New York called Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in which he defends the theory that the holocaust could only have happened on that scale because ordinary Germans, who were not converted to the ideology, who weren’t indoctrinated in the regime, naturally took part. This is a violent theory and it caused a lot of debate, but it spoke to me. I read the book. And I thought that I pretty much agreed with it. I’m an ordinary guy and I can’t answer for how I would have acted in a conflict like that. I read the book in 1990, a long time before Rwanda. I wanted to talk about it because being human is what I’m interested in. But I realised that it was an extremely complicated issue and that we didn’t have enough distance from it. There is no historical distance and I had a hard time placing things. And then I went back to the book. And I realised that the German family in Hamburg could just as easily be the Hutu family that I wanted to use in my initial play. The common factor in these two stories is that we’re dealing with ordinary people, regardless of whether they’re Hutu, Serbian or German. They all, because of an evil deep within them, because of their humanity, fall into … And I authorised myself to broach this subject because I had the feeling that we’re more distanced from it now. But I was wrong.
You write theatre that concentrates on the evil in humanity. Your plays place a lot of emphasis on frustration and bitterness even. How would you explain this obsession?
Frustration is a powerful tool. We are caught in a cycle of frustration from the day we’re born till the day we die. When I develop my characters, I like to place them in a prism of frustration. Because this open up enormous perspectives for me. Characters living out a conflict are always trying to find that which they don’t have, they’re always thinking about something else and that feeds the inner conflict. The fundamental issue in my plays is question of responsibility the responsibility for being human with respect to others and how I’m responsible for myself. My characters are always searching for the responsibility within. And if they don’t manage to take responsibility for themselves, to assume their assets and their failings, they tend to say that it’s everyone else’s fault. It’s blatant with Nicolas in Négrerrance.
I try to work on the characters’ inner obstacles. When I work on my canvas, I have a pragmatic way of lining up the internal obstacles with the external obstacles and external obstacles caused by internal obstacles. I create a trilogy to construct my characters. The external obstacle is a bit like a diabolicus ex machina I want to go to the Antilles but there’s a strike on. It’s not my fault I can’t go. I can’t do anything about it. It’s an obstacle that creates frustration. The external obstacle caused by an internal obstacle is like Cyrano de Bergerac I’m responsible, but only indirectly. Cyrano is born with a nose that bothers him a lot. Although his nose becomes an obstacle, he can’t do anything about it and he has to put up with it. I work on the internal obstacle, the obstacle that the character is fully responsible for. Some of my characters are very ambitious but they stay on the sidelines instead of throwing themselves into the game. There are endless possibilities for these characters but …
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