From France to Haiti and back

Interview with Michèle Lemoine, by Sylvie Chalaye

Paris, November 1999.
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You performed in Ecchymose last year, a play written and directed by your brother Jean-René Lemoine. Did you become an actress out of family tradition?
I started out in the theatre quite late on. It was as a result of my brother, who got involved in the theatre very early on. We were living in Belgium at the time. He enrolled in the drama school in the little provincial town where we lived. And one day, by chance, I had to give him the line for an exam he was taking. And there, I knew that that was what I wanted to do too. I didn’t start straight away. I went to university, I let a few years pass by. Then, as soon as I moved to Montpellier, I enrolled in the drama school. And I’ve never stopped since.
Were you given a part in any plays?
I took classes for three years. Then I left France. I went back to Haiti, and I began to work at the Centre Dramatique Franco-Haïtien with Jean-Pierre Bernay, who had just arrived. We worked together for five years. It was a difficult period, but very fruitful too.
What difficulties did you come up against?
Everything is hard in Haiti, including theatre! On a financial level first of all, then vis-à-vis the public. You cannot make a living out of theatre in Haiti.
Isn’t there an acting profession?
Everyone involved in theatre in Haiti does other things. It is impossible to make a living from it. When I worked at the French Institute, I did other things, just like all other actors. I used to teach by day, and we would rehearse in the evenings. The other difficulty is drawing an audience for performances over a certain duration. A play is never staged for a month in Haiti. Only a few performances are given.
Is the public made up of expatriates, of overseas workers?
No, not at all. It is the Haitian public, but there is a real economic problem. Not everybody can afford the price. The majority of the population is very poor. There is also a problem in terms of language. Haiti is meant to be a bilingual country, but the majority of the population only speak Creole. When you perform a play in French, or a play in Creole, your target audience is more or less reduced. Even if you concentrate on the Port-au-Prince public and you work in Creole, the play’s exploitation is still difficult after a while, and you cannot continue to put it on. However, plays in Creole by certain writers, such as Franck Etienne, draw an enormous amount of people.
What did you perform with Jean-Pierre Bernay?
We put on plays from the French repertoire, and from Haiti’s French and Creole repertoire. The most enriching was working on the texts by Franck Etienne, particularly Casser les Os.
So you chose to come back to France after five years
And, on my return, other difficulties began. It is hard to find doors open to Black actors here. I worked with Gabriel Garran on Maréchal Nikkon Nikku by Tchikaya U Tam’si, and three years ago, when Alain Ollivier put on Nelson Rodriguez’s Ange noir, I was part of the chorus. But I have mainly worked on personal projects, readings, montages, and quite quickly I was put off going to auditions and castings.
Black actors frequently refer to the nightmare of unbearable auditions.
The people running the auditions always have fixed ideas about the actors they are looking for, but when it comes to Black actors, they have an idea of the colour, the accent, it becomes a real straight-jacket, which it is hard to fit into. I couldn’t bow to that. No doubt you have to know how to bow to the conditions of this profession.
How do you explain the fact that Black actors are made so few offers?
The theatre milieu is very closed. A play director meets people and creates a group. A director does not have to call upon the whole Republic when he or she wants to put on a play.
What motivates a French play director to use a Black actor? There are two types of situations. Either it’s for a « Black play », and so all there is in terms of Black actors in Paris are called up. There are even those, such as Jacques Nichet for La Tragédie du Roi Christophe, who go off to the West Indies and Africa to find them… and people say that there are no Black actors. Or, the play director deliberately choses a Black actor for such and such a role, and this is a directorial intent, which will be commented upon, questioned by the critics, such as Declan Donnellan who wanted a Black person to playing le Cid…
You don’t think a director puts a Black actor in a play because the person is, above all, a good actor?
When a director appreciates a Black actor whom he/she wants to have work, he/she is forced to ask the question of knowing how people are going to interpret these choices. I can understand this concern, at a pinch, but people only need to go beyond that.
How do you explain the questions surrounding Black actors on stage? Are they the doing of a society which refuses to see itself as multicultural?
Yes, there is above all a lack of desire to take risk and a lack of openness amongst directors.
As Black actors work so little, they have time to do other things…
Yes, I work in audiovisual production. And I wanted to make a documentary on Haiti. It took some time to get the funds together, but I managed. It was co-produced by RFO and broadcast on TV5 and RFO Sat. It went to two or three festivals: Montreal and Namur. I am preparing another one at at the moment.
What was the subject of the first documentary?
It is called Chronique des femmes oiseaux , and focuses on Haitian women, the travelling traders whom we call the « Madame Sarah ». They travel across the country, from one end to the other, buying and selling wholesale. They guarantee the circulation of food and essential products on the informal market, which is the principal market in Haiti.
And the subject of the one you are currently working on?
The subject is a highly popular game in Haiti called La Borlette. It appears to be just a normal lottery at first. But what is interesting, is that people play a two-figured number. These numbers are deducted by interpreting their dreams. Each type of dream corresponds to such and such a number. There is a whole dream-like world behind it, which is absolutely fascinating.

///Article N° : 5440


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