Thou whoreson zed!

Posted on August 16, 2013

0 hippopotamuses cannot share the same hole:  Ivory Coast Proverb

In an attempt to change the pace a little, this week I chose to read a play, Jaz, by Koffi Kwahulé.   Little did I realise when I chose Kwahulé, the wealth of material available on him, the frequency with which his plays are performed in Europe and North America (Francophone Canada in particular), and the extent to which his work has been criticised, analysed and generally picked apart by academics and theatre-goers.   It’s rather daunting, therefore, to add my parsnip to this potage, especially as I can’t shake my rather un-academic response to the title. But really, why is there only one zed?

Approaching Jaz it struck me how different reading a play text is from reading a novel.  After all, drama is a visual medium and what works on the page may not translate to stage or vice versa.   The play text is simply a starting point from which a committee, from the director and actor to the set designer, costume designer, and  in Jaz especially, the music director, interpret meaning and give form.   I knew as I was reading Jaz that excerpts of a staged version were on YouTube, so it took an effort of will not to watch the play but to read the text and to put myself in the place of this artistic committee before becoming part of the audience.

Jaz takes the form of a monologue with scant stage direction.

A woman.
Her head shaved perhaps.
Naked perhaps.
A gun.
An identification slate.
Jazz [a single instrument]
which, from time to time,
pierces/is pierced
embraces/is embraced
by the woman’s voice.

The monologue weaves its way through the story of Jaz a beautiful woman, described repeatedly as a lotus, a sacred flower that grows out of the mud but is unstained. Jaz blooms in the shitty (literally) slum in which she lives before she is violently and sexually assaulted in a public lavatory.  Playing with the monologue form, the narrator (who we assume to be Jaz) distances herself from Jaz by constantly shifting from speaking as Jaz to speaking for Jaz. The scant direction, ‘pierces/is pierced’, ‘embraces/is embraced’ also plays with this. Jaz is both inside and outside, her identity shattered and not entirely re-synthesised. Then there is Oridé, ‘beautiful enough to wake the dead’. I was never entirely sure whether Oridé was simply another facet of Jaz’s broken identity or whether assault is so commonplace that Jaz has friends who share her experiences. This is probably a fault of my French (or lack thereof). Finally, the ‘single instrument’ (why can I only imagine a sax?) of the stage direction also operates as a character, even though when and how the music is to be played is left undirected. The text however is fractured, there are jumps and breaks into which one naturally inserts the music. This sense of something missing, of absence, works in the text on a hauntingly psychological level, but must be hard to interpret in performance.

For me, one of the impressive elements of the script (not wishing to be dismissive of the way in which Kwahulé deals with woman’s struggle for identity and independence but we have been here before), is the way in which Kwahulé manages so naturally to thread like shiny beads, small details of Ivoirian custom and slum life onto the braid of his twisting monologue.  We get a very strong sense of life in a rooming house, the ways in which Ivoirians bury their dead, the sounds and smells of the street markets.  It’s a tour de force of brevity and clarity.

I could write more about the language, themes and metaphors of this piece.  It is so richly written and constructed and yet paradoxically so loose in direction that it’s like listening to Jan Garbarek in a smoky club.  It forces you to go with the flow as it were.

Having read the text, I then decided to watch a performed excerpt.   The director cast three women in the roles of narrator, Jaz and Oridé. Well, it’s one way to go I suppose.   The staging was minimal to the point of, well, being an empty stage apart from the actors and the saxophone (told you!) player.  The rhythm of the French and the passing around of the monologue is hypnotic, while the saxophone makes sense of the abrupt changes in focus.  Sadly, because I’m an unprofessed-philistine (professed now, damn), it smacked of worthy, local theatre and reminded me of a particular episode of Spaced.   Double damn!