Seven Plays of Koffi Kwahulé: In and Out of Africa
Translated by Chantal Bilodeau and Judith G. Miller, Edited with Introductions by Judith G. Miller, University of Michigan Press, 2017
Reviewed by Neil Blackadder
Volume 8, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
University of Michigan Press’ African Perspectives series has provided the opportunity for a kind of publication that all readers of The Mercurian wish would happen far more frequently: a collection of translations of plays by an important contemporary playwright. Moreover, this handsome volume features brief yet substantive essays by both the editor and the translator, as well as introductions to each of the seven plays, with production photographs. Koffi Kwahulé, born in Côte d’Ivoire in 1956 and now based in Paris, is well deserving of such a collection.
The seven plays span a period of two decades, from 1992, when Kwahulé won a major French playwriting prize with Cette vieille magie noire (translated as That Old Black Magic), to La Mélancolie des barbares (Melancholy of Barbarians) published in 2009 and first staged in 2013. There’s great variety of style and theme among the seven plays. Jaz is essentially a monologue spoken by a rape victim called Jaz, though she’s to be accompanied by a jazz instrument, and “a chorus of Jaz figures might prove very effective” (67). Big Shoot and Blue-S-Cat are both two-character plays, the first taking place in a glass cage, the second in an elevator. Brewery is aptly described as a “farcical four-hander” (219), while That Old Black Magic, “The most ‘realistic’ of Kwahulé’s plays” (21) calls for seven named characters plus a jazz quartet. The cast of Misterioso-911 is “At least six women. Ideally, eight or ten. Possibly more” (145). Finally, the translation of Melancholy of Barbarians features fifteen characters, though in the original script (as in some of the others), Kwahulé didn’t assign lines at all.
The texts are informed by a wide range of cultural and historical material, and most readers will benefit from Judith Miller’s elucidation in her introductions. Clearly, jazz constitutes one of Kwahulé’s most frequent points of reference. That Old Black Magic alludes to a song from 1942; one of the women in Misterioso-911 plays Thelonius Monk’s 1958 composition “Misterioso”—and, in a characteristic departure from what might seem obvious, does so on the cello. But That Old Black Magic also draws on, and quotes from, Goethe’s Faust. And Big Shoot, as Miller puts it, “explores the fundamental question of the Old Testament: Am I my brother’s keeper?” (101). Misterioso-911 is set “Sometime after September 11, 2011” (145) and was written shortly after the terrorist attacks, while Jaz was inspired in part by the systematic use of rape as a weapon during the war in Bosnia, and Kwahulé’s examination of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed in Big Shoot grew out of his work with survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Brewery (the one script translated by Miller rather than by Chantal Bilodeau) is the only play explicitly set in the continent of Kwahulé’s birth: “We are in an unnamed African country at the end of a Civil War” (223), though it also contains many Western cultural and literary references, and substantial passages in German (of which English translations are provided). Melancholy of Barbarians reflects most directly the fact that Kwahulé has lived in France for most of his adult life, its hard-hitting theatricalization of life in a working-class suburb having been written “at the behest of a cultural and social committee in Rodez” (269).
Miller provides a helpful introduction to the translations in her essay “Soundscapes, Mindscapes, and Escape,” where she contextualizes Kwahulé’s work in relation to that of other African, and particularly Francophone African playwrights, going back to the 1960s. Like other critics, Miller places Kwahulé in a group of “hybrid” playwrights who, beginning in the early 1990s, “insisted on their right to critique the commodification of an ‘authentic Africa’” (3). She fittingly characterizes Kwahulé’s plays as “multilayered and polyvalent meditations” which “fold specific political commentaries into a larger concern about what it means to be a human being in postcolonial times” (4). With little more than five pages to write about seven plays, Miller offers interpretations that are valid in themselves and also convey how much there is to grapple with in Kwahulé’s work, e.g., “His is an uncomfortable real, situated somewhere between classical realism and surrealism, more a psychic state than a material one, often even cartoonish” (7). The notes to Miller’s introduction include some valuable information and ideas that might have more effectively been incorporated into the essay itself.
While most of the editorial material was written by Miller, it’s appropriate and pleasing that Bilodeau is given the chance in “A Word about the Translation” to explain how she dealt with some of the main challenges posed by Kwahulé’s scripts. It’s interesting to read about her decision, in That Old Black Magic, to “in a sense, ‘reconstruct’ the sounds and rhythms of 1950s American film noir English” (17), and how she approached all the very local slang in Melancholy of Barbarians. The most striking decision Bilodeau made in preparing her translations for publication was “to assign dialogue to specific characters in four of the five plays where, in the original, that assignment is left open to interpretation” (15). While her point that “I felt it was necessary to make that choice in order to facilitate the reading of these unfamiliar and dense texts” (16) makes some sense, it does render the experience of reading—or of preparing to stage—these translations significantly different than it would be for someone reading the original French scripts. And the translator rather contradicts herself by opting not to assign the lines in Misterioso-911 on the grounds that “I felt assigning the lines would have pushed the translation into the realm of an adaptation” (16)—couldn’t the same thing be said, then, about the texts in which she did assign the lines? Still, in most cases, the volume does make clear in the introductory material for each play whether or not Bilodeau has assigned lines where Kwahulé did not.
The translations themselves generally read well, conveying the often hard-edged but also at times quite lyrical quality of Kwahulé’s French. I did find some passages less smoothly rendered than they might have been, such as “on foot from the opposite end of the world all the way to here” (108) for “à pied du bout du monde jusqu’ici” in Big Shoot. Misterioso-911 features one character objecting to another using the informal ‘tu,’ and while a combination of referring to “her first name” and using the character name Linda may well be the best option available, the repeated long phrase “calling her by her first name” weighs down the dialogue. Characters in Misterioso-911 also address each other as ‘Madame,’ and Bilodeau’s solution for that is to use Ms.—but that leads to unlikely-sounding lines like “Ms., it’s true!” (167) for “Non, mais c’est vrai, madame!” Not crucial, but I was surprised that, for a US publication, references in Jaz to “au quatrième” and “au sixième” were translated as “On the fourth floor” and “on the sixth floor” (80) rather than adjusted to American usage. More importantly, there’s some odd inconsistency regarding which details in the texts were included in the English versions. For instance, Kwahulé writes in parentheses that the jazz quartet mentioned in the character list for That Old Black Magic is “(indispensable),” but that’s omitted from the translation (23). And only some of the dedications and epigraphs in the original texts have made their way into the English versions—often at the top of Miller’s introductions, which is misleading.
The oddest editorial decision is to include after the introductions to each play a list of “Notes for reading and performance” that are numbered as if (as with the endnotes to Miller’s introduction to the volume) they relate to superscript numbers in the preceding text—but they don’t. It’s not clear why at least some of the valuable information in those notes, particularly regarding what led Kwahulé to write each play, couldn’t have been incorporated into that play’s introduction. It’s also surprising that nobody caught the failure to correctly print, in Miller’s translation of Brewery, the German character ß, which instead shows up as f. Personally, I always like translations to make clear what the titles of the original works were; in this volume, one has to delve into the notes to Miller’s introduction to find that information. The collection would also have been enhanced by more details about productions of the plays in the original. All we find out about where and when these examples of Kwahulé’s work have been staged is what’s included in the captions to the photographs that accompany each introduction.
As Bilodeau underlines in her acknowledgments, most of the translations in Seven Plays of Koffi Kwahulé “have gone through an extensive development process” (vii) involving such organizations as The Lark, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Such collaboration is integral to the best theatrical translation, yet it’s unfortunate that the collection wasn’t published following several full productions. It’s apparent from the information provided (and some more recent internet research) that these translations have not been staged in the US except for one university production. That is regrettable, though perhaps not surprising, given the demands presented by Kwahulé’s work. One hopes that some enterprising theatre companies will rise to the challenge of producing these scripts; in the meantime, it’s great to have these translations available in book form.
NEIL BLACKADDER recently retired from a twenty-five-year career teaching theater at Knox College and Duke University. He translates drama and prose from German and French, specializing in contemporary theatre. His translations of plays by Lukas Bärfuss, Ewald Palmetshofer, and Rebekka Kricheldorf have been produced in London, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, while many others by Ferdinand Schmalz, Maxi Obexer, Evelyne de la Chenelière, Thomas Arzt, and Mishka Lavigne have been presented in staged readings. He serves on The Mercurian’s advisory board, is active in ALTA, co-founded the Theatre in Translation network, and is a member of Chicago’s Third Coast Translators Collective.