What are the origins of Traces – Discours aux Nations Africaines?

Patrick Colpé, who directed the Théâtre de Namur at the time, commissioned a text from the Senegalese thinker Felwine Sarr, whom I had met after inviting him to the Récréâtrales Festival in 2016. Between the two of us, a prodigious feeling of brotherhood—intellectual, poetic, artistic—immediately developed. Thus, in response to Patrick Colpé’s request, Felwine replied that he would write this text if I performed it. So this text is basically a gift.

However, when I read the finished version of Traces, the text did not reveal itself to me. I was faced with a mystery that I couldn’t penetrate, that resisted my way of working. So one day, realizing that I didn’t have access to the mysteries at the heart of his writing, I gave a public reading under a mango tree, in a family courtyard. When I fell silent, I felt a great stirring in the audience: the mystery was working even though I didn’t understand it.

I began collaborating with the author and director Aristide Tarnagda, with whom I’m very close, who made the text more perceptible, and with this revelation came my decision to begin with the phrase: “I have conquered the word.” And it was through this act of conquest that I was able to share Traces, because its performance is essential; its revelation stems from the act of sharing.


What does Traces convey?

It’s the story of a man who, by crossing the desert and the sea to live in misery in Europe, experiences a journey of initiation. He speaks to us after returning home to Africa. “Us” refers first of all to his family, his brothers and sisters, but quickly takes on the dimension of the continent. In fact, beyond any identity-based sense, this “us” never ceases to expand, quickly encompassing the diaspora and then our common home, humanity, for the latter was born in Africa. This “us” thus moves from the intimacy of the self towards the greater-than-self.

It is an invitation to insurrection against oppression, but above all to spiritual elevation. And my conception of the spiritual is embodied in this image by Sony Labou Tansi: if humans speak, if humans write, it is “to have a little more sky on their shoulders.” Africa is the birthplace of humans and, unlike Kronos, it does not want to devour its children, but to re-birth the world. This man is asking Africa to anchor itself in its origins, in the origins of time, so that it can do what it knows best.


Where does this performance stand in your path as an artist?

This man is a bit like me. One day I left my country and my job as a teacher to go and live in Paris and Brussels. Then I came back to Ouagadougou to found a theatre company, then the Festival des Récréâtrales. I know this path and the way back, which I’ve passed on in my art in bits and pieces.

With Traces, the word is central. This show is my fourth solo performance, after having shared texts by Aimé Césaire, Dieudonné Niangouna and Sony Labou Tansi. In presenting Traces, I realize that these authors, while never denying the wounds and pain, are pacifiers of memory. This is what I deeply felt at the Festival des francophonies in Limoges, when I performed all four texts in one evening.


What does it mean for you to present Traces in North America, in Quebec?

It allows me to ask: What are our common experiences? What are our links? Traditionally, Canada has enjoyed a benevolent image, but because of the gold mines run by Canadian companies in Africa, this image is becoming tarnished. I ask myself: how does the prosperity and comfort of the average Canadian citizen relate to the living conditions of a citizen of the Sahel? Traces is not a fixed performance; depending on audience reactions, there can be improvisation.

In fact, this show is a conversation where the words do not have to be one-way. For me, theatre is a space for social discussion. And the content of the discussion must be treated as such. There is no advantage in defining theatre according to the aesthetic criteria of a coterie, or in terms of commercial profitability. What matters is to establish a dialogue between the stage and the audience.


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