CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How is that for amazing timing? A friend whom I met during my open mic musical travels just posted an exceptional new song and video, so exceptional that I told him I wanted to spread the news…but after five days sitting on it, I was still not sure how I could do that. What would be the context to talk about his amazing song and the fabulous video he did using footage of Josephine Baker dancing in Paris in 1927? And then, wow, today I suddenly saw the news in France that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has agreed to enshrine Josephine Baker in the Panthéon in Paris! The first time a black woman has been given such an exceptional honor in France. And how incredibly appropriate that my friend’s song about Baker – whose bones will now rest in the Panthéon – is called: “Bad Bones.”
I have spoken about my friend Pete Cogavin in the past, and about his band, The Hobosapiens. But this time I am completely blown away by the video, and I cannot believe the timing. Baker was an American star in the roaring twenties Paris, and not only amongst the artistic expats of the time like Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, et al. She was hugely popular in France, and that right through her life, until her death in Paris in 1975. She was a human rights activist, a women’s rights activist, a civil rights activist – she was from St Louis, Missouri – and had also worked in the French resistance during World War II. She was also known for having adopted 12 children, and one of them – Brian Bouillon-Baker – was involved in making this request to Macron.
In fact, the request to place her in the Panthéon – among the bones of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Jaurès, Jean Moulin, Jean Monnet, Pierre et Marie Curie, André Malraux and Alexandre Dumas and others – was also made by the novelist Pascal Bruckner, the singer Laurent Voulzy, the entrepreneur Jennifer Guesdon, the essay writer Laurent Kupferman. Macron apparently gave his go-ahead on 21 July, but the story has just come out in in the French media overnight.
Above all, or rather, to start with, Josephine Baker was an exceptional performer, famous for her dancing costume of a belt of bananas. As you will see in the video above. (Even if the bananas are not featured in this particular video.)
And while I am at it talking about Pete Cogavin and the Hobosapiens, and while we are also on this French theme in Pete’s music – he is an Irishman who I met while he was living in Nice – I want to draw your attention also to this beautiful rendition he also just did – solo, chez lui – of the famous song by Piaf: La Vie en Rose. He starts off in English, then moves into excellent French! Chapeau Pete!
A previous request to place Josephine Baker in the Panthéon had been made in 2013 to François Hollande, then president, and he rejected it. Simone Veil, another great woman activist, was accepted amongst the mostly men in the Panthéon three years ago.
Kupferman said this decision regarding Baker was just what was needed in today’s political environment in a statement I translate from French: “It’s a very strong message for universality. Joséphine Baker incarnates that which we all need right now, which is to say, to get together as one. She is the proof that in the French republic, anything is possible. That an equality of opportunities exists. And that next to our rights, we also have obligations.”
Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.
Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company. But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.
Marine Lefèvre and the old woman
That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.
We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.
When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.
Poster for Première Etape in October
We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.
Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.
Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.
Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.
During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves
Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.
When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.
Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show
I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.
The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.
And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.
We took a short break from the creation of our work-in-progress at TAC Teatro in order to put together and perform a commemoration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Originally intending to put on the flash mob and short performance in Asnières-sur-Seine, where the company rehearses, we had a last minute change of plan and did it all in Paris. So it was that putting on this performance we called “Les Chaussettes Rouges” (The Red Socks) was pure delight.
In the middle of a few weeks of desperately cold, rainy, horrible weather, our target date of 24 November, the day before the official date of the United Nations commemoration, we ended up with sun all over town. It could not have been a more beautiful day, and so it allowed us to use several different locations for the flash mob, and another location for the performance, as we spread the names of women victims of violence across the city where the day before there had been a demonstration of 45,000 people in support of the same cause.
As you can see in the above video that we made of the day, we started by rehearsing what we planned in a small, quiet backstreet of the Place de Clichy. Then we put on the first flash mob at the beginning of the Boulevard de Clichy. After that, we walked to the Place des Abbesses, in Montmartre, where we did the second flash mob.
We performed a third flash mob at Stalingrad, in the big place by the canal, and we did the performance in the park of Belleville in a kind of modern take on an ancient amphitheater. Present were all of the actors of TAC Teatro and a couple of the students from TAC’s acting school.
It was quite an emotional, but also liberating, day, as we moved through the city as a group and performed for a surprised public, looking and pointing to the sky for the victims of domestic violence. The flash mob and performance was something we all wove together in a few days preceding the event – with lots of thought having gone into it in the month before, week to week, as we continued to prepare our show.
It was, as Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro said, the preparation for the event that was as much an act of contributing towards this cause as was the actual performance.
PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.