African francophone theater fascinates grad student Sylvie Ngilla
By Sylvie Ngilla, Ph.D. candidate
The play Jaz by the Ivorian Koffi Kwahulé inspired my interest in contemporary African francophone theater. Fascinated by the musicality and juxtaposition of words in Jaz, I read all Kwahulé's plays and discovered other contemporary African playwrights such as Kossi Efoui (Togo), José Pliya (Benin), Dieudonné Niangouna (Congo), Caya Makhélé (Congo), and Marcel Zang (Cameroon). These writers use very different styles to express the experience of exile, yet a common thread in their work on language and narrative structure can be called "chaotic." I became deeply intrigued by the encounter of theater, music, dance, and poetry that makes these contemporary African plays nontraditional.
The notion of chaos defines much of postcolonial African francophone literature. During the 1960s and 1970s, Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi illustrated the emergence of writings on African chaos by depicting the violence of dictatorships and numerous crises in Africa inherited from colonial domination. Although contemporary African francophone playwrights assume an affiliation with the chaotic subversive grammar in Labou Tansi's works, I am more interested in demonstrating how they made a leap from an existing conception of chaos to one that is more dynamic, and based on transformations-in-motion. At this point, I have been inspired by the discourses of chaos in contemporary science that define chaos as a constant paradox, and I focus on the dynamic of "order" and "disorder" in contemporary African francophone theater. I analyze a series of musical (specifically American free jazz compositions) and cinematographic techniques that break the rhythm in these writings.
Through my research I came into contact with Professor Sylvie Chalaye, an internationally recognized specialist in African francophone theater at the University of the Sorbonne (Paris III). I am excited to be working with Professor Chalaye in Paris and Professor Mária Brewer at the University of Minnesota in a joint Ph.D. program. Thanks to a doctoral dissertation fellowship, I am currently finishing my research on some of the most innovative theater being produced in the contemporary African francophone sphere. I plan to go to Africa soon to continue my research, and then to complete my dissertation before beginning a research and teaching career.
A Graduate Research Fellowship from the Department of French and Italian enabled me to go to France, pursue archival research, and attend the latest contemporary African francophone performances. Contemporary black African francophone theater research is an exciting field of endeavor. The African francophone avant-garde theater is widely recognized in France, but it remains relatively unknown to theater scholars and specialists in the United States and globally. Thus my goal as a scholar and teacher is to make African francophone playwrights' voices heard, and to contribute to understanding the singularity of their approaches and the common ground their works share.
During my research I started to combine the fragmentation of text with the chaotic identity of the new generation of African playwrights. It seemed to me a crucial issue because this new generation has to face critiques of the "authenticity" of their African plays. The avant-garde of African francophone playwrights is creating a new way to think about African literature through a new "chaotic" approach to literature. I like the fact that they challenge current assumptions of what is an "African play." These writers are deeply engaged in a critical dialogue on the interconnections between fissured identities and the opening of space for new artistic voices. This "chaotic" approach to literature is related to how African playwrights are contributing to innovative and experimental ways of understanding identity in a globalized world.
Born and raised in Paris, of Cameroonian descent, and currently a student in Minneapolis, I recognize myself in this chaos of plural identities.