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Aimé Césaire: The Arts in Lyon

19/02/2013 09:50 GMT | Updated 17/04/2013 10:12 BST

If you go to one theater performance this winter, make it the Persona Company's production of Aimé Césaire's epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.

Joël Lokossou walks briefcase in hand, erect and unassuming, across the black stage carpet, sets down the briefcase, stands arms straight by his sides. The lights go down. He opens his mouth and ponderously the first words of Cahier d'un retour au pays natal roll off his tongue. In his Antilles accent, his Rs trilled or lightly suggested in his throat, in his marvelous deep voice that growls and yelps and booms, he declaims: Va-t-en, lui disais-je, gueule de flic, gueule de vache, va-t-en je déteste les larbins de l'ordre et les hannetons de l'espérance (Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope).

Aimé Césaire wrote the Cahier in 1936 on his return to Haiti from Paris. The desolation of the country he loved and the despair of its inhabitants inspired him to dive into the lowest, most desperate fears and privations of his homeland in order to eventually overcome them. The poem itself is incandescent. Césaire takes the French language to its furthest limits, elicits nuances of emotion from despair to ecstasy and everything in between. Something so all-encompassing sounds impossible until it is read, or in this case seen, for Joël Lokossou as the sole actor in this production does more, much more, than simply walk onstage and recite a poem.

The production is spartan - just a man in a room with a valise - seemingly to avoid distracting us from the real focus of the show: Joël. He walks out onstage, seeming not to notice us, calmly sets down his briefcase as if just another man about to get on the train for a business trip, but instead turns our way and begins to speak. He begins with a threat - Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope - and relaxes, draws closer, confides to us, remembers the hurts and wants of the impoverished past and present, reminds himself of the injustices of the present and grows indignant, cajoles, curses, harries, heckles, harangues, savors his words as he swishes them around in his mouth, skips them off his tongue and spits them out at us, convinces us somehow that this is all extemporaneous, that Cahier d'un retour au pays natal is an hour and a half long rant that happened to come to him the moment he stepped into the room. He falls silent. He takes off his jacket, his shirt, his hat, his shoes. He stands bare-breasted in front of us, opens his briefcase, lifts it above his head, and pours what looks like ash over his downcast head, an improbable amount of ash. He falls to his knees, decries not the centuries of oppression, not the whippings, not the beatings, not the exploitation, the exclusion that his people went through, but how low they are now, how little they know and how far they have to go, approaches us slowly and says, confidingly, mockingly

les nègres-sont-tous-les-mêmes, je vous-le-dis

les vices-tous-les-vices, c'est-moi-qui-vous-le-dis

l'odeur-du-nègre, ça-fait-pousser-la-canne

rappelez-vous-le-vieux-dicton :

battre-un-nègre, c'est le nourrir

(niggers-are-all-the-same, I tell-you

vices-all-the-vices, it's-me-telling-you-this

the-nigger-smell, it-makes-the-sugarcane-grow

remember-the-old-saying :

to-beat-a-nigger, is to feed him)

and falls back on his knees, at his utmost limit and desolation. J'accepte. J'accepte, he says; he plumbs the depths in order to rise again, to proclaim:

Eia pour la joie

Eia pour l'amour

Eia pour la douleur aux pis de larmes réincarnées.

(Eia for joy

Eia for love

Eia for grief and its udders of tears reincarnated.)

And with each eia he quite literally jumps in the air and his arms trace a wild circle above his head. With every ounce of energy in his slight, leanly muscled physique, with everything that is significant and imposing in his short stature and his little heaving chest, he rears up and lets go a litany of sorrow, abasement, acceptance, hope, and ecstasy.

I practically stumbled out of Joël Lokossou's performance of Cahier d'un retour au pays natal with the Persona Company, directed by Renaud Lescuyer. The play ran in Lyon until Monday, January 28th and afterward moves on to Russia, Algeria, Italy, Benin, Senegal, and possibly also the United States and Canada. The Théâtre des Marronniers is well known and runs excellent productions all year. "Take care of you, for me," the story of Valaida Snow, African-American jazz musician, and Yossef Blumenthal, both internees in 1942 of a Nazi-run prison called Wester Faengle, plays February 6th to 18th.