by Serubiri Moses
The play I watched last night, Patricia Gomis‘ Moi, Monsieur, Moi! is a feminist play. But who exactly is a feminist? I find myself asking this question as I watch the play at the ongoing 2nd Kampala International Theatre Festival.
I am more intrigued by the idea of a feminist play than by the subject of feminism. Perhaps there’s a real difference between feminism and what people have made out to be, and called, feminist. Feminism is always described within a political context: women in politics are bound to be called feminist.
So in some way the term feminist is really a cliché for women pursuing political agendas. Would you call Rebecca Kadaga, Speaker of the Uganda Parliament, a feminist because she once declared her interest in running for the presidential elections? Is American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, a feminist because she, like Kadaga declared her interest, has gone further to register as a presidential candidate for America’s elections in 2016?
When it comes up in mainstream or popular culture, feminism is harder to describe. When it comes to a music or theatre stage, feminism is harder to identify (note my reference to popular culture, and mainstream culture in general) because of morality as is generally interpreted within popular culture.
The Red Pepper, the Kampala-based tabloid, is really a melodramatic version of what the church describes as immoral. I suppose morality, since there is no global modernity as yet, differs in various contexts across the globe. What is described as modern in Shanghai might not be the same as what is seen as modern in Mombasa.
When it comes to modern culture, this phenomenon does not occur in one blanket effect around the world. Instead modernity along with the industrial politics of the 20th century continues to battle with cultural temperaments of various places. This is why when I return to the question when is a play feminist, one has to consider the place from which the playwright begins to think about, and make theatre.
No such cultural feminist umbrella exists. One has to consider that 1970s feminist punk rock could be feminist in London and New York, but not feminist in Mumbai or Kigali.
Typically, one can not say that an African diaspora playwright reflecting on a personal history that begins in a remote village in Senegal is a feminist, as easy as it is to say that Hillary Clinton is a feminist because she is Secretary of State and running for American president.
Typically calling an African diaspora author deeply rooted in their continent’s history a feminist will raise eyebrows. But one thing is for sure, Patricia Gomis‘ play constantly negotiates with the woman’s proximity to Africa’s modernity. Seeing examples of this critique enacted as theatre performance was shocking and impressing all at the same time (the effective use of classical drama’s shock tactics worked in very subtle and piercing way).
The play tells the story of a girl (represented by a puppet) who leaves the home by being given away like ‘bits of wood from God’. This description becomes rather a sub-theme woven into the play (the play generally did not have a dramatic plot, but rather it relied on movement, on action, and on ventriloquist comedy, otherwise called Marionette).
As a reader of African novels, I recognized this sub-theme as being related to Senegalese author Ousmane Sembene’s 1960 novel title, Les Bout de Bois de Dieu or God’s Bits of Wood. The way, in comparison, that Moi, Monsieur, Moi! tends to focus, not on the anti-colonial epoch as Sembene does, and hence stays away from African literature’s nationalist approaches. Though both are derivative of the oral philosophy and oral literature of Senegal.
In this metaphorical sense, Moi, Monsieur, Moi! takes on a God, but that is within Gomis‘ reading of Senegalese folklore.
The bits of wood are a symbol for fire, home, of brotherhood, of togetherness, and of family, as they symbolize this for, no doubt, many other local cultures and oral philosophies across Africa. In Buganda, the term Omuganda comes from a philosophy of bits of wood tied in a bunch to symbolize strength and familial relation. A similar oral philosophy, Umuganda, has been instrumental within post-genocide justice in Rwanda.
Therefore, by rupturing the entire scope of the local philosophy of Les Bout de Bois de Dieu, through, again, the subtle and yet piercing ways, the playwright’s dramaturgy that makes the girl’s mother give away her sticks turns that same Senegalese God of the Bits of Wood into a woman.
But in this re-reading of Les Bout de Bois de Dieu, would the female God then give her daughter away?
In any case, the Nietzschean anti-modernist philosophy ‘God is dead,’ symbolizes a changing humanism. Likewise in Gomis‘ play, the scintillating ‘Mon Pere est Mort’ (My Father is Dead) signifies a changing humanism in Senegal; and thus, placing herself in a radically different place from a patriarchal narrative of Africa’s nationalism.
What is the woman’s role in the family? And in a larger sense, what is her place when this God-like woman gives her children away like Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu or God’s Bits of Wood?
The time of cutting the little girl is another discovery in the play, goes back to a critique of Senegalese modernity in the 20th century. In this scene the actress took on the performance attributes of a gigantic baobab tree: frightening, dense, puritanical, masculine.
The free-flowing and whirling movements in the actress’ massive white kaftan with outstretched arms, reminded me of the Islamic Sufi aspects of that very modernity. More precisely, as Gomis whirled around the stage in a tall, frightening, and puritanical white garment I recalled the whirling dervishes of the 19th French Romantic paintings set in Sudan and Egypt.
In this too, the fear of the girl protagonist who reiterates under the garment ‘I don’t want to be cut!’ is that: ‘the towering baobab eats young girls,’ is a sharp critique of how Senegalese Islam encouraged the marriage of young girls before, as Gomis says comically their small mangoes became ripe.
The best moment, for me, was not so dramatic as all the ones I have described above, but rather it was a case of irony. When the girl is in a history class, and the teacher cannot see her hand waving in the air like a kite shouting, “Moi! Moi! Monsieur?! Moi! Moi!” (me, me, sir? me, me), she notes her invisibility, and perhaps in this moment poignantly captures the struggle of Senegalese women with modernity. Finally, the old and bitter male teacher points at her, at which point she forgets the answer burning within her mind–and by extension, her body shows this embarrassing forgetting. She pauses, Moi! Monsieur?
Gomis in this irony makes a marvellous argument for the presence of the girl, through an improvised smart answer made up on the spot. Perhaps, this shows that Senegalese woman have had to make it up where they could get any kind of visibility within the larger epoch of modernity in Senegal.