Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The lights were up in the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street in New York when a climbing series of alternating phrases of bass and tenor notes emerged. Simon Winsé, a virtuoso musician from Burkina Faso, was playing the kora, a centuries-old West African instrument, his thumbs and forefingers plucking the strings while the belly of the instrument lay on the ground between his legs. Thus began Traces — Speech to African Nations, a spoken language piece with music, written by the Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr and performed by the Burkinabé actor Étienne Minoungou. The performance, delivered in French with English supertitles, was one of the events in the Crossing the Line Festival, organized by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) to bring artists from around the French-speaking world to New York City audiences.
Minoungou spoke from a podium microphone, where he revealed the text in three acts. He told of a man who left Africa to lead a life of misery in Europe. The man was hungry for freedom, but “no dignity could be won in the backyard of others,” Minoungou said, in the language of the English translation. So the man returned, only to find worse misery in knowledge of Western colonization. “The predators arrived, draped in talks of civilization and enlightenment,” he said. “[They] established inhumanity and built altars for it.”
The man had sought freedom and fought for it, striving for a state where he could be free to forget his history. He had felt all the pains the world had to offer; his will was bracing the full heat to which it is recast. “Forgetting sometimes goes with healing,” Minoungou said.
The lights persisted when Minoungou traded lines with African instruments, all played by Winsé. Cascades of kora notes rose and fell. The mouth bow reverberated, droning in echoes. The Peul flute screeched in unsettled bursts. All along, the music reinforced the drama of the text and helped give it pulse.
Minoungou, remaining at the podium for the duration, brought a feeling of restrained sobriety to the work. The words carried their own weight. “I must speak to you, for only words remain,” he said. At one point, he encouraged an audience member at the back to come closer to the stage. In the world of the text, he was addressing fellow Africans, while speaking more broadly and potently to a group of theatergoers in a country with deep roots in colonialism. What Traces traced in the dramatic language of suffering is the unlikely persistence of hope — hope lost and gained in the uprooting of dystopia and the aspiration to utopia.
The lights came down only when the music waned, the performance ended — not that it, in its impassioned veracity, ever felt wholly like a performance. Though Sarr’s text never makes obvious connections, it inevitably evoked Black lives in contemporary America. And, to that point, the fragility of hope in all its forms.