[I’ve just published a report on Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research (ROT, 25 August) in which I mentioned the director’s production of Tierno Bokar at Columbia University. As a follow-up to that article, I’m publishing my 2005 performance report on Brook’s production. Note that this assessment was originally a comment to some friends on a casual basis, so the tone is less formal than some of my later theater reports.
[Tierno Bokar Saalif Tall (1875–1939) was a Sufi sage, a member of a distinguished clan, and a spiritual leader in his village in what is now Mali. His clan, exponents of repeating a Sufi prayer 12 times, was embroiled in a debate with a rival clan that advocated repeating it 11 times, a debate that devolved into a conflict over power and leadership in the Tidjani Sufi Order. When Tierno eventually became a follower of Hamallah, a member of the rival clan, he was cast out by family, relatives, and clan, branded a traitor, and forbidden to teach or pray publicly. His enemies further ostracized him by collaborating with the French colonial powers, portraying him as a fomenter of rebellion against French rule. Tierno died impoverished and isolated. The play Tierno Bokar is based on Malian writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s book about his studies with Tierno, Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar: le sage de Bandiagara (Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, 1957; translated as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, 2008).]
Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I got tickets for Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar on Tuesday, 19 April . Brook's in residence at Columbia University under the auspices of the Columbia University Arts Initiative which is headed by Gregory Mosher, formerly of Lincoln Center (and before that, the Goodman in Chicago). Brook and his troupe, Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT), are performing Tierno Bokar, based on the biography of "the Sage of Bandiagara," at Barnard College; there didn't seem to be any student involvement, so I don't know how the residency/sponsorship works at Columbia.
Where to start, where to start?
Bokar, of whom I had never heard before, was a Sufi Muslim teacher who lived in French colonial Mali (then called Upper Volta, I believe) from 1875 to 1939. He became part of a conflict with another clan over the recitation of a prayer, "The Pearl of Perfection," which his group believed should be said 12 times, while the opposing clan believed it should be said 11 times. This conflict ultimately led to violence and gave the French an excuse to crack down on all of the native subjects. Bokar went to the leader of the Elevens and reached an understanding with him, causing his own clan to ostracize him. He essentially died an exile in his own village. According to Brook's statement in the program, his point is to "illuminate . . . the power of violence and the true nature of a tolerance that is more powerful still." Well, that's certainly a nice notion, laudatory, even—perfectly in keeping with Brook's politics and philosophy. Unhappily, the performance didn't accomplish this as far as I was concerned.
Well, to begin with, Margo Jefferson was way too generous with Brook in the Times on the 7th. She seems to suggest that it's worth seeing the performance: "Still, research is a journey, and journeys can matter as much as arrivals." In this case, neither the journey nor the arrival were worth much. In fact, I'd venture that there was no arrival—it was just an endless journey! I finally read Gordon Cox’s Newsday review of the 7th from the 'Net, and it's more accurate perhaps, but still too kind. [Jefferson’s New York Times review on 7 April 2005 was entitled “Timeless Lessons on Tolerance Imparted by a Sufi Sage From Colonial Africa”; Cox’s Newsday notice seems to have only had the headline “Theater Review” and no longer appears to be available to non-subscribers.]
There are maybe half a dozen serious problems with Tierno Bokar, some large, some small, but the most pervasive and all-encompassing is that it isn't theater! It's storytelling—which is an art, but a different art. (When I say 'storytelling,' I mean the kinds of performance that are part of the tradition in places like India, where itinerant storytellers go from town to town, sit in the village square or someplace, and recount the legends of their people, unraveling an illustrated scroll—sort of like a linear comic strip . . . er, 'graphic novel.' I've see this on tape, and it can be marvelous—the storyteller is a true performer—but it's different from 'theater' as we usually understand it. Africa has this tradition, their griots being charged with recounting the village history—though that may be almost the same as the myths and legends of India, I guess—and many American Indian cultures also have this tradition. Since neither African nor Native American languages had a written form originally, it's obvious where this tradition of storytelling comes from. And, perhaps, why we've lost it in the West to a great degree.)
Tierno Bokar has virtually no physical action of any kind—either innate or imposed (like dancing or rhythmic movement to symbolize something) and the two types of speech are not just untheatrical, they're anti-theatrical: narration (which is almost never theatrical, much less dramatic) and what I can best describe as "instruction" (where someone, usually Bokar, gives a brief lesson to someone else). It's not conversation, much less dialogue. And it's enervating, to say the least. I had trouble keeping my mind from wandering (that's not accurate: I failed often to keep my mind from wandering), and Diana actually nodded off at least once. Maybe we're both ignoramuses, but I posit that that reaction says something about the performance! If Brook is going for minimalism—and he was a follower of Grotowski in his early days—he seems to have jumped over a few steps. Even Grotowski acknowledged the need for acting (well, actors—but the latter seems to presume the former), but Tierno Bokar had no 'acting' in it—just some 'positioning'—not really 'movement'—and recitation/narration. And Grotowski decided that the playwright wasn't a necessity, suggesting that the text was secondary to some extent. This implies that the actors’ work was paramount in communicating ideas, but Tierno Bokar relied on text almost exclusively—words you either read (the supertitles) or heard, but not actions at all. If Brook had had some kind of narrator, like the Kabuki or Noh singer at the side of the stage, while his actors 'performed' the roles and events of the story, maybe in ritualized movement or dance, that might have been something. If the text had been sung or chanted, like we believe Greek drama was presented, that might have been theatrical. (I don't say any of this would have worked—I don't know.) But what Brook presented here was basically narration in which the actors became the speaker/storyteller plus the illustrated scroll—and just about as animated; Diana raised the comparison with 'tableaux.' Anyway, he seems to have jumped over the positions on the continuum of theater that included anything theatrical; he went from what he apparently sees as too much spectacle right to dead air. (Can you say, "Nothingism"? That's the step after Minimalism. It's not the same as "Nihilism," by the way.)
This is all exacerbated by the fact that, since the performance is in French with supertitles, you have to keep reading the words above the actors' heads—the whole piece is the text, after all; there isn't anything else—so you do more reading than watching anyway. I still speak French, but it's not good enough to handle a performance, even though the language was close to elementary-school level. (If your whole piece rests on words, the words, I'd think, should be . . . well, scintillating is a word that comes to mind. This sounded exactly like what I suspect it was—quotations lifted directly from the biography of Bokar that is the basis of Brook's text. Research, indeed! Comes awfully close to plagiarism for my dough! Speaking of which—the tickets were 40 bucks a pop!)
It didn't help, by the way, that the seats in the performance space, a converted gym, were excruciatingly hard—for an hour-and-a-half, intermissionless sitz.
Brook's reputation rests on his innovation and avant-garde convention-breaking, but there were no theatrical techniques on display here at all—neither old, traditional ones nor new, radical interpretations. "Pushing boundaries," if that’s what Brook does, suggests to me that something more ought to have been going on than there was. If creating a totally enervating experience is "pushing the boundaries," then maybe that's what Brook was doing—but it strikes me as an accomplishment that demands (but not 'begs') the question, "Why?" I'll amend that: the question ought to be "WHY??!!" Like I said: not theater.
I guess, if we're ranking the problems, the next one down would be the central plot element: the conflict between Bokar’s Twelves and the Elevens. I understand that this is a symbolic struggle, but it was Little-Endians vs. Big-Endians to me—it made no sense, I couldn't understand it, and it was unengaging to me. Therefore, I didn't really care about the struggle. It seemed so senseless, even though I understood intellectually that it was important to the participants, that I was not engaged. (Brook wrote in the program, "All through human history, every society ends up by getting it wrong. In the beginning there is always a bold rush of energy. This creates new, fresh structures, but they soon turn into institutions which from then on slowly become fossils." That's the closest Brook or the play—in which these lines don't appear—comes to explaining anything.) I suppose it didn't help matters that the acting was so low-key (I think the Newsday reviewer remarked on this phenomenon—he was right) that the performances didn't substitute for the lack of intellectual conflict I felt (or, I guess, didn't feel). Remember Chekhov? It is often said of his plays, especially Uncle Vanya, that in a play about boredom, the acting cannot be boring. Well, Brook forgot this lesson. (Apologies to Grotowski, but there is something to say for spectacle!)
I also never figured out why the French got involved in this struggle. I know, again in my head, that this was just an excuse for the colonial masters to suppress and brutalize the natives, but I still don't see why they even cared one way or another even minimally. I can guess that the struggle became so violent that the French had to start arresting and imprisoning leaders from both sides to try to restore peace or something, even if they didn't care which side prevailed, but that wasn't in the play as far as I could see. Besides, the French brutality was only recounted in the narration—it was never represented on stage. (There were a few early scenes of colonial arrogance—but they were more ludicrous than frightening. School teachers extolled the virtues of France and encouraged the students and native teacher to sing a patriotic song which held no real meaning for them, of course. The French did invent chauvinism, of course.) Besides, do we really need to be told again that Western imperialism is destructive, bad, immoral, and brutal? We hardly need a play about an obscure figure who died almost 70 years ago to tell us that anyway—we only have to watch the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the legacy of modern Africa (can you say Sudan and Rwanda?).
I've already remarked on the acting—there isn't more to say than that it was minimal to the level of invisibility—and I guess the point that there was no staging to speak of says all that's needed about the physical directing. The set looked interesting when we went into the theater— the Newsday description is accurate—but nothing was made of any of it. Once or twice, a rug was used to represent a river that had to be crossed, but for the most part, everything was literal.
Remember my personal criteria for good theater? It has to do more than tell a story and it has to do it in a way that uses the attributes of live performance (that is, be theatrical in some way). Well, Brook did just the opposite as far as I'm concerned. He just told a story and he didn't do anything at all theatrical. I'd say that gets an F.
I'll add one further comment: This was all the more disappointing—maybe there's a stronger word—because it was Brook. Despite the reviews, Diana and I both went in expecting something at least interesting if not exciting. Brook's image as an innovator and experimenter implied that there'd be something going on, even if it was unsuccessful. The raised expectations made the experience even more of a let-down. Tierno Bokar didn't look like anything more than an amateur attempt to translate a prose narrative into a staged retelling. (Do you know about the so-called Purim play? Little kids put one on in most temples; it's an enactment of the story of Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman. Tierno Bokar kept reminding me of this. At least, at the end of a Purim play, you get to have some Hamentaschen—little triangular pastries. In this case, I could have used a stiff drink!)
You know, I have the impression I had more to say right after I saw the performance, but I've already forgotten it all. I've either got early Alzheimer's, or that says something about this experience.
[Tierno Bokar was adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from the book by Amadou Hampaté Bâ (1901-1991). The production featured music by Toshi Tsuchitori and Antonin Stahly and lighting design by Phillipe Vialatte. Sotigui Kouyaté, from Burkina Faso, who appeared in Brook's Mahabharata, The Tempest, and other productions, played Tierno Bokar. (Kouyaté died in Paris in 2010 at the age of 73.) Brook and CICT spent a month in residence at Columbia in the spring of 2005. Forty-four related events sponsored by the Columbia University Arts Initiative in partnership with the Harlem Arts Alliance and Barnard College included symposia, lectures, workshops, and class work. The Columbia University Arts Initiative, directed by Gregory Mosher, was launched in February 2004. In 2010, Brook presented 11 and 12, an expanded version of Tierno Bokar; based on the same material, this play is performed in English.]