Theatre review by Harriet Alida Lye
Chocolat: Clown Nègre tells the true story of Rafael Padilla, a former slave born in Cuba who became the first black artist in France. Rafael captivated Parisian audiences in the Belle Epoque through his talents as a singer, dancer and clown, working under the stage name of ‘Chocolat’ (a term that, because of his roles, became slang for “ridiculed or abused”).
The monastic Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord – domed, ballustrated, curlicued – is decoratively decrepit in design, effortlessly providing a perfect setting for the play. A white circle is painted on the floor and a white sheet hangs as a backdrop; two strings hang from a central pole; everything suggests a vague tent-like shape. Projected on the sheet in the background, as the crowd fills the theatre, are images of a black acrobat, flashing like a moving Muysbridge photograph. I am reminded of all the components that bring something from one point to another.
Rafael – played by the astonishingly talented actor Yann-Gaël Elléouet – comes onto the stage, his ivory eyes (the same colour as his trousers) scanning the audience, his gaze not prioritizing, not sticking on anything.
“I died in Bordeaux on the 4th of November, 1917,” he says (in French), over the bass reverberations of a heartbeat. When he speaks, his eyes fill – but do not spill – with tears.
For these first few minutes, Rafael is stripped down to pure, simple emotions: sad, happy, afraid. Both Rafael and his world are painted in the stark opposites of black and white. As the play goes on, his character develops all the inflections of any human: pride, confusion, jealousy, ambition, love. By the end, Rafael is nuanced with all shades of gray.
“My father told me to hide your past in the crook of your palm and just dance,” Rafael says, “and to then turn your past into dreams.”
When his parents died, the woman charged with looking after him sent him to Europe – “where there are no slaves” – and where Rafael hopes to find his freedom. He found odd jobs in Spain and arrived in Paris in 1887 at the age of 18, where he was discovered by Footit, a British clown who needed a partner.
“I found him…in a jungle,” Footit tells his manager. And with this, Rafael – who becomes known to everyone as Chocolat – joins the circus and begins the muddy process of self-discovery, learning too that he can lie about his origins. To some, he says he is American, or even “American-Indian”; to others, Spanish. Later, when he gets caught without his paperwork, the police say they will “send him back to his own country: Africa.”
In Havana, Rafael was a slave because of the colour of his skin. In France, the colour of his skin becomes “the heart of his race – something for which [he is] humiliated.” What is the difference between skin colour and race? Is it that skin colour does not permeate the epidermis, whereas race is what physical anthropologists tried to say came from within?
In the circus, Rafael is habitually cast in denigrating roles – he is king of the monkeys, slave to Cleopatra, King of the jungle. Despite this, and his frustration at the racial typecasting, the characters in the play exhibit nothing more than benign curiosity towards Rafael and his skin colour. The wardrobe mistress tries to scrub his skin because she heard that “if you rub hard enough the black turns white,” and a girl with a moon-faced mask says, to herself, “I wonder what the Negroes think of us.”
The play is both a slapstick comedy and a moving allegory that tackles the complex issues of identity, immigration and construction of stereotypes. Chocolat: Clown Nègre cartwheels through divisive contemporary issues that define so many lives; his story is a universal one. Beg, steal, borrow a ticket – see this show.
All photographs by Maixence Fabicolor
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
March 14 – 18