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