Black Man at the Comédie Française

Bakary Sangaré © Discover Paris!

Bakary Sangaré
© Discover Paris!

The Comédie Française – the most prestigious of French theaters – opened membership of its permanent troupe to a black man almost twelve years ago. On September 1, 2002, Bakary Sangaré, a Malian of considerable reputation on stage and screen was the 673rd person to be elected to the troupe.

Sangaré studied theater at the National School of the Arts and Theater Techniques in Paris, where he completed an apprenticeship during the late 1980s. He has played Shakespearean roles such as Ariel (1989) and Hamlet (1996) on the French stage under the direction of Britain’s Peter Brooks. He performed in a theatrical rendition of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) at the Théâtre International de Langue Française in 1993, and staged his own production of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in 2000 – 2002. And he starred in the critically acclaimed African film entitled Samba Traore in 1992.

At the time of his acceptance to the troupe, the Comédie Française expressed its commitment to have Sangaré play roles that are not based on racial personifications. This is significant because the Comédie Française produces almost exclusively classical French works, very few of which portray black characters. It has lived up to this commitment – the roles that Sangaré has played include the Lion in Fables de La Fontaine, Organ in Molière’s Tartuffe, Steve Hubbell in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s La Nuit des Rois (The Twelvth Night).

Sangaré’s debut at the theater was coupled with another historic event – for the first time in its history, the troupe produced a play written by an African playwright. Papa Doit Manger (Papa Must Eat), by Franco-Senegalese Marie NDiaye, made its debut in the Salle Richelieu of the revered theater on February 22, 2003. The story centers around the return of a wayward African man to his French wife and two métisse daughters after a 10-year absence, and the havoc that it wreaks on the household.  Sangaré played the glib, apparently contrite Papa, and delivered a masterful performance in his first role as a member of the Comédie Française.

Sangaré has stated his belief that other blacks will follow him and take their place on this stage. “If theater is a mirror of society, then necessarily, one day all the faces of our mosaic society can be reflected there,” he said. >

He is cast in the lead role of William Shakespeare’s Othello for the theater’s 2013/2014 season.

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Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the creator of Entrée to Black Paris tours.

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

Paris – Infused with Black Culture

Paris – Infused with Black Culture

I am always looking for evidence of the influence of the African Diaspora on the Paris landscape and was pleasantly surprised to find it in an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood that lies in the  2nd arrondissement.  

The Théâtre des Varietés is a playhouse located on boulevard Montmartre, a trendy section of the area known as the Grands Boulevards. In 1854, a play entitled L’Argent du Diable (The Devil’s Money) by 19th century playwrights Victor Séjour and Adolphe Jaime fils was performed there. 

Victor Séjour was a free man of color from the Louisiana Territory, son of a Santo Domingan (Haïtian) father and a New Orleans-born mother. He came to Paris in 1836 to pursue a career as a writer. He was a contemporary and a friend of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

Though Séjour enjoyed considerable success as a playwright, he died a pauper in 1874. He is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Also located on boulevard Montmartre, the famous Grévin wax museum features representations of royals and politicians as well as celebrities from stage, screen, and sports. Michael Jackson found his place here in 1997. More recently, replicas of President Barack Obama, César winner Omar Sy, basketball player Tony Parker, and Olympic judo medalist Teddy Riner have been added to the collection.  The museum also created a statue of Josephine Baker, which is on display at Baker’s château in the south of France.

On nearby rue Vivienne, a huge photograph of rap artist Mos Def holding the November 8, 2008 edition of the left-leaning French newspaper Libération hangs in an American-style bistro called, Lefty. President Obama’s photo appears on the first page of the paper; the headline reads “We Have a Dream.”

Paris – Infused with Black Culture

Mos Def holding Libération © Discover Paris!

Another image of President Obama can be found on a business card affixed to the window of a tailor’s shop alongside a photo of Elizabeth Taylor, and two photos of Joy Villa.

My most surprising discovery was a poster of Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, in the window of an old-fashioned wine bar called Le Gavroche.

It turns out that the poster is a flier for a photography exhibit that was held in 2011 at Galerie La B.A.N.K (now closed) on rue Volta in the 3rd arrondissement.  The exhibition featured photos by a number of photographers including Pirkle Jones. Jones and his wife Ruth-Marion Baruch photographed the Panthers from July to October 1968.

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Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the creator of Entrée to Black Paris tours.

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

La Roue de Paris

Les Champs-Elysées—Quintessential Paris

(excerpted from Paris Insights – An Anthology)

On a rare sunny day one early spring, my colleague and I decided to take a ride on “La Roue de Paris,” the huge Ferris wheel that sits at the end of the Tuileries garden at Place de la Concorde. There were a few concession stands at the base of the wheel, and the lovely aroma of golden-brown gaufres (Belgian waffles) permeated the air.

The view of Paris from the wheel was breathtaking, particularly on this clear day. The wooded mound of Butte Chaumont and the chalk-white splendor of Sacré-Cœur were in the distance, and much closer, the dome at Invalides looked as though you could reach out and touch it. The precision of the Tuileries garden with its first spring blossoms lay at our feet, and it was marvelous to be able to see this landscape in its entirety. But for me, the most impressive view from the wheel was that of the Champs-Elysées, the world’s grandest avenue.

Between the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe lies the 330-year-old thoroughfare that is renowned everywhere. In the distance farther to the west lies the Grande Arche de la Défense. Built under François Mitterand, the monument completes the line of grandeur that begins with the Louvre and the Tuileries garden. Postcards simply cannot capture the power and the spirit that emanate from this magnificent example of city planning.

The Champs-Elysées was born in 1670 as the result of landscape architect André Le Nôtre’s design of a tree-lined garden stretching from the Louvre to the hill where the Arc de Triomphe now stands. Over the years, constant remodeling and upgrading turned it into a veritable playground. Circuses, concerts, and other types of performances for public amusement flourished. A number of the pavilions and theaters that housed these activities are still found in the gardens on either side of the first stretch of the avenue between Place de la Concorde and the Rond-Point.

Many fine residences were built along the Champs-Elysées. Thomas Jefferson occupied one of these homes from 1785–89, when he was the US ambassador to France.

Public celebrations and rallies have been a part of the history of the avenue for centuries, and that tradition still holds today. Every year, the Tour de France cycling race terminates on the “Champs” (the French are avid cycling fans), and thousands of people cram the sidewalks to cheer on their favorite team. And what would Paris be without its annual Bastille Day celebration, including a huge parade on the avenue with a fabulous aeronautical display overhead and fireworks once dusk falls?

Whether you go to get a glimpse of the romance of centuries past, to do some serious shopping in the luxury boutiques along the avenue, or to idle away the hours at a sidewalk café, the Champs-Elysées is a “must-do” for everyone!

Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is co-founder of Discover Paris! and a contributor to Paris Insights – An Anthology

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

Hemingways Paris

Hemingway’s Paris

(excerpted from Paris Insights – An Anthology)

Perhaps the most famous and frequently quoted American writer to live in Paris, Ernest Hemingway once quipped that if one were lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then Paris would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Hemingway moved to Paris with his wife, Hadley, in 1921. He worked there as the European correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, while making connections with writers and artists, and striving to become a published fiction writer. In his book A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964, Hemingway recounts his experiences during those years in Paris, and writes about the people he met.

The decade of the 1920s was a particularly intense and fertile period for writers and artists in Paris. Talented American writers such as Malcolm Cowley, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (to name only a few) gathered in and around the area called Montparnasse, frequenting cafés such as the Dôme and the Dingo where they exchanged ideas, argued, and drank. Hemingway was part of this scene, though he preferred the café called La Closerie des Lilas, where he could sit and write in relative tranquility.

Through his association with writer Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway met other Americans living in Paris, a number of whom helped and encouraged him in his efforts to become a published writer. He met, for example, Gertrude Stein, who had been living in Paris since 1903. She reviewed Hemingway’s manuscripts, and made comments on them, pronouncing some of them unprintable because of the frank language he used. Their friendship continued for some time, but soured by late 1926, perhaps due to rivalry.

In a chapter entitled “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” Hemingway portrays himself as an impoverished writer during those early years. He relates how hunger was part of his experience while living in Paris, and how he used it to enhance his appreciation of the paintings of Paul Cézanne that were on exhibit in the Luxembourg museum. According to Hemingway, Cézanne’s works were sharper, clearer, and more beautiful when viewed on an empty stomach.

Later in this chapter, he pays a visit to Sylvia Beach at her lending library, Shakespeare and Company, where he learns that a payment of 600 francs has arrived for one of his stories. Beach, because he looks thin, encourages him to go home and have lunch. Instead, Hemingway immediately proceeds to the Brasserie Lipp, where he orders a potato salad and a liter of beer. The following paragraphs are a delicious account of a man enjoying a hearty meal, although one is left wondering whether Hadley was alone back at their apartment eating dry bread.

Travelers to Paris will enjoy reading this book before they embark on a trip to the city. Hemingway’s stories will regale them and hone their anticipation of the delight that they will experience when walking in his footsteps and those of his friends.

Tom Reeves
Discover Paris
Tom Reeves is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the author of  Paris Insights – An Anthology.

Remembering Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet in 1922

Sidney Bechet in 1922
Public Domain

Next to Josephine Baker, clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet was the most beloved African-American performer in France during the 20th century. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 14, 1897 and died in France on his birthday in 1959.

Bechet traveled to Paris for the first time in 1921 to perform at the Apollo Theater with the Jazz Kings. He met Baker for the first time in 1925, when he returned to France as part of the troupe of La Revue Nègre (The Black Revue). The show opened on October 2nd at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Bechet was the star musician of the show; Baker was the star dancer.

La Revue Nègre went on the road in 1926 and Bechet traveled with the show. He returned to Paris in 1928 to play at the club Les Ambassadeurs with Noble Sissle’s band. He made a brief trip to London and Frankfurt before returning to Paris to play at Chez Florence, a jazz club in the Pigalle district.

On a fateful evening in 1928, Bechet was involved in a shoot-out with banjoist Gilbert “Little Mike” McKendrick outside Chez Florence. Both men were sentenced to 15 months in prison. After serving 11 months of the sentence, Bechet was deported. He returned in 1931 to play briefly with Noble Sissle’s band at Les Ambassadeurs.

Bechet’s popularity in France skyrocketed in May 1949, when he appeared at the International Jazz Festival in Paris. He began playing with Claude Luter and his Orchestra (a French jazz orchestra) that same year and made the first of numerous recordings of “Les Oignons,” his most successful recording. His performances in the fall and winter of 1949 represented the revival of New Orleans jazz in France.

Bechet established permanent residence in France in June 1950. He resumed performing with the Claude Luter Orchestra and began to spend summers performing in Juan-le-Pins on the French Riviera. In 1951, he married a German woman whom he met during his first tour of Europe during the 1920s and settled with her in the Paris suburb of Grigny. He would subsequently take an apartment in Paris.

By 1953, Bechet’s concerts were attracting record crowds. At a free concert that he held at the Olympia Theater in 1955, the crowd that gathered was far larger than the theater could hold and the agitated young fans ended up rioting!

In 1956, Bechet moved to the Paris suburb of Garches with a mistress named Jacqueline and their son, Daniel. The Sidney Bechet Fan Club was founded that year. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1958, his health deteriorated over the subsequent months. He succumbed to the disease on his birthday, May 14th. He died at home in Garches.

By Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the creator of Entrée to Black Paris tours.

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

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