Research Project: FrenchTheatreSoWhite? A History of Postcolonial Performance in France

Clare Finburgh Delijani

Clare Finburgh Delijani‘s project, supported by a three-year Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, will result in the first book-length history of postcolonial theatre in France and its overseas territories. It will tell the hidden history (1950s to the present) of theatre in France that stages anticolonial resistance, champions decolonization, and reflects on the legacies of colonialism in postcolonial societies today. Its interdisciplinary approach foregrounds crucial debates around immigration and national identity, staged by artists. Often performed by postcolonial subjects themselves, works analysed use theatre’s unique capacity to reveal how ‘racialized’ identities are constructed from language and images, and how they can be reshaped to foster new ways of understanding our postcolonial world.

Postcolonial approaches to French-speaking societies and cultures are a major growth area, from which theatre is all but absent. This might be owing to the perception that migrants and postmigrants from France’s former colonies tend to produce films, novels or more ‘popular’ art forms like stand-up or rap, rather than theatre. Self-exclusion and institutional exclusion from theatre-making are certainly a reality and in 2017 the Décoloniser les Arts movement labelled French theatre ‘so white’, and ‘racist by omission’. Notwithstanding, this project demonstrates how a small yet persistent and growing number of artists have generated a body of work which can be recognized as ‘postcolonial theatre’, and seeks to define this term as a distinct area of practice and reflection in France.

The scores of plays and productions examined treat some of the livest topics today: migration; national, transnational, diaspora, Creole and plural identities; intersections between ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality; state secularism; the roots of the current ecological crisis in colonial occupation and industrialization; the transatlantic slave trade.

Contracted with the Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures series at Liverpool University Press, the book traces a history of postcolonial plays, productions and institutions. It begins with anticolonial pieces created during the independence struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, for instance by the Martinican Aimé Césaire, and Algerian Kateb Yacine. It moves through key works from the second half of the twentieth century that address postcolonial identities in a neocolonial world, for instance by African playwright Sony Labou Tansi; as well as the founding of important institutions like the Festival International de la Francophonie in Limousin. The book’s main focus is the growing profusion of postcolonial works – markedly dominated by women – produced since the start of the twenty-first century, when awareness of the legacies of France’s colonial past on contemporary society increased, whether in the form of consciousness-raising, or the ‘culture wars’. Works include historical dramas such as Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s Saigon (2017), which follows a Vietnamese family’s experience of war, exile and migration; or pieces that expose the haunting consequences on individuals and families of repressed colonial history, like Marie Ndiaye’s Rien d’humain (2004).

Unlike other cultural forms, I believe that theatre can illustrate how the colonial past has not passed, by staging it concretely in the audience’s present. Theatre transmits hidden histories through performers’ bodies, enabling audiences both to reflect on, and feel ideas, with the emotion and energy of liveness. Theatre is a particularly powerful tool since performers can bring life and embodied presentness to the stories of those who were persecuted, or killed. Theatre also obliges audience members, who might react in conflicting ways to difficult subjects, to sit together.

This project hopes to make an original contribution by affording the recognition already enjoyed by postmigrant film, literature, television and visual art, to postcolonial theatre. It thereby establishes postcolonial performance in France as a genre, inspiring future generations of postmigrant theatre-makers, and encouraging further critical engagement.

Clare’s talk “‘Hear the Bones Sing’: Postcolonial Ghost Plays”, 5 May 2022, is based on her research for this project.


Some other examples of research projects at the CCL