French choreographer Alain Buffard’s Baron Samedi (On the Boards, May 8-11) was an engrossing meditation on—what, exactly? Taking its name from the troublemaker guardian of life and death in the Haitian Voudou pantheon, Buffard’s dance-theater work encompassed interrelated (and oft-conflated) subjects of race, power dynamics, colonial hierarchy, and sexual dominance and subjected them to a carnival mentality where social roles were both chosen and forced upon the performers. Of course, none of this was stated explicitly in the performance; instead, the six performers plus two musicians spoke, sang, and moved through scenarios that subtly but clearly pointed toward these topics. At the crux of Baron Samedi lay the music of Kurt Weill, whose songs, composed between 1928-1949, still retain their social commentary. Baron Samedi has a haunting, slightly tragic aura that is heightened by Buffard’s death last December, and the OtB run marks the group’s final performances after its premiere only two years ago at Théâtre de Nîmes.
Surreal and at times disturbing, Baron Samedi nevertheless possessed a striking lucidity. While there was no linear narrative, many of the situations seemed damningly accurate: a where’s-the-money argument, a sugar-tongued rape scene, an arbitrary handing out of job titles. Each member of the international cast (Nadia Beugré, Hlengiwe Lushaba, Dorothée Munyaneza, Olivier Normand, Will Rawls, and David Thomson) carried the performance with subtlety and conviction, navigating multi-lingual sections of song, personal story, dialogue, and fully embodied personae without skipping a beat. Despite the disturbing subject matter, the work managed to be entertaining, thanks to both the caliber of performers—triple threats, all—and the engaging melodies of Weill’s music.
A white floor structure, designed by Nadia Lauro, took up most of the stage, sloping upward in the back to about chest height, allowing the performers to use both the high ground and the space behind the set. The starkness of the white made the performers, dressed mostly in combinations of color, pattern, and black, pop, as if they were existing in a space that didn’t quite exist. It was abstracted from real life, the better to delve into the bizarre. As lighting changed, the floor glowed gold or blue, the performers became silhouetted black figures, their movements even more visible in the contrast, laid bare in this new layer of abstraction.
In keeping with carnival conventions that subvert established hierarchies, the performers’ roles and relationships were mostly fluid. Thomson emerged as a trouble-bringing authority figure, often wearing a military coat and top hat (not unlike the Baron himself), his resonant voice commanding as he called the shots on stage. He was also the one to sing “Pirate Jenny,” from The Threepenny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht) where the hotel worker fantasizes about condemning her masters to death. He sang, while the others worked, scrubbing the floor, scrubbing each other in mildly disturbing repetition—Rawls swung Normand back and forth like a mop. It was a strange power dynamic between who was working, who was singing about working, and who was reaping the rewards. Much later, in one of the more movement-heavy interludes, the other five surrounded Thomson as he teetered off balance, presaging a shift in power that never fully came.
One of the most memorable sections came when Normand distributed job titles—an absurd convolution of a carnival where the roles were designated from the top down and rigidly enforced: lawyer, judge, witness, pimp, whore, even “nothing,” as there weren’t enough jobs to go around. He hassled Lushaba about her papers, and when she hesitantly tried to stand up for herself as a writer, he labeled her a clerk. This was a sharp and upsetting contrast to the confident defiance of Lushaba’s earlier persona. Rawls appeared resigned to his role as the prostitute; he was changed, broken after being a rape victim in a previous scene. Beugré, however, seemed uncomfortable in her role as pimp as she went through prescribed motions of Rawls’ body. Munyaneza’s accompanying rendition of “Mack the Knife” dripped with something between bitterness and resignation.
Lyrics aside, the music itself set the tone. Discord and darkness underlay the whole, even when the melodies tended toward sweetness, like in “Youkali” and “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.” There is an abrasive, even fateful quality to Weill’s compositions that Sarah Murcia’s adaptation of the music brought out effectively through persistent staccato and sparse plucked strings. She and Seb Martel were stationed at the side, where there instruments were—keyboard, upright bass, and electric guitar—but they, too, wandered onto the white flooring structure to interact with the other performers.
In many ways, Baron Samedi offered a window into the Francophone imagination. The performers’ roles and power plays tapped into the problems of a colonial past and a post-colonial present. The history and legacy of colonization looms large in the cultural consciousness of the Francophone world, of which much of the Caribbean is a part. The United States has no lack of imperialist and race-related skeletons in its closet, but the corollary is a bit different. Yet Baron Samedi was anything but insular, and the problems of economics and power it addressed are true for an American audience as they are anywhere else in the world. While the whole work was admittedly abstract and heady, Weill’s songs grounded it as a work of art that remains entertaining while tackling serious topics. Seattle is lucky to have gotten the last glimpse.
For more information on Alain Buffard, visit his website. This video is worth watching for an idea of what Baron Samedi looked like. Information about On the Boards programming here.