Writer Melikah Abdelmoumen has often told me about her passion for writers James Baldwin and William Styron. What led her in 2019 to write a text for the magazine Spiral, “James Baldwin and William Styron: Writing America on the Other”, which was the cornerstone of the show Baldwin, Styron and I, presented at the Quat’sous as part of the International Literature Festival.
It revolves around a literary friendship and a debate that continues to this day. Could William Styron, descendant of slavers, own the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in 1831? James Baldwin, descendant of slaves, author in particular of Next time the fire, considered that it was, because the writer’s freedom allowed it. Styron, better known today for writing Sophie’s choice, who gave a famous film, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for Nat Turner’s confessions, but that success will also come with a lot of criticism about cultural appropriation. Baldwin moderated a very interesting discussion on this subject between Styron and activist Ossie Davis, quoted in the show.
You might think when you see the poster that Elkahna Talbi will play Abdelmoumen, and that Lyndz Dantiste and Émile Proux-Cloutier will play Baldwin and Styron respectively, but in fact, they tell me, they will have the words of the three writers in their mouths. the result of many discussions during rehearsals. “Sometimes there was uneasiness and we wanted to move towards that unease,” explains Dantiste, who finds that we are here in “a version of history that we don’t often talk about, that is to say when we tries to put yourself in other people’s shoes. There are so many groups and backgrounds competing against each other at the moment, it proves that the only way to be able to get out is to listen, but also to be open to listening to the other. “.
None of the three performers were very familiar with the works of Baldwin and Styron, but one thing is certain, they discovered that our debates on cultural appropriation and author’s freedom are not new. “What Melikah succeeds in doing with this text is to meet these great writers, but also the nuance, notes Elkahna Talbi. She thinks both are right, and I like the idea that you can both be wrong AND right, but that these issues have to be debated. For her, it starts with cultural appropriation, but for me, it goes beyond that framework. ”
“What struck me was how unoriginal our tensions are,” continues Émile Proulx-Cloutier. Here, there is also a dialogue with the eras. Beyond the meeting, or the debate that touched me, what interested me is the deep friendship and respect between two authors who love and challenge each other. They are forced to come out of politeness and talk about what they grew up in. It is not only a question of calming the tone and making compromises, it is the depth of the exchange which challenges, when they speak about their respective sides of the history. The problem with the word “nuance” is that it seems less dark, whereas here I find that the courageous value is given back to the word “nuance”. ”
Elkahna Talbi confides that she would have liked the rehearsals to be recorded, because the discussions were often lively. “But during the rehearsals, we try to have something in common with regard to these issues, that is completely the beauty of the project”, notes Lyndz Dantiste.
What we will hear in this reading are the words of Melikah Abdelmoumen, as well as those of James Baldwin, William Styron and Ossie Davis. But what we will really experience is quality dialogue. What Émile Proulx-Cloutier particularly appreciated is that there are not only extracts from written prose, but also interviews and spoken exchanges. “To hear someone looking for what they’re saying while they’re saying it feels good,” he notes. Ultimately, it’s closer to the theater. I like to be on the border between literary essay and theater. We explore the thoughts of these two men, and it is very topical. ”
Baldwin, Styron and I, by Melikah Abdelmoumen. Reading: Jonathan Vartabédian. Performers: Lyndz Dantiste, Émile Proulx-Cloutier, Elkahna Talbi. Presented on September 27, 28 and 30 at the Théâtre de Quat’sous.
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International Literature Festival / Baldwin, Styron and me | Who’s talking about whom?