Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“Life that desires to be life. Life that persists and soars. How do we free those who are already free?” This is the final question of Felwine Sarr and Dorcy Rugamba’s Freedom, I’ll have lived your dream until the very last day, performed (in French with English subtitles) at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) Florence Gould Hall Theater as a part of this year’s Crossing the Line Festival. The play itself stands as the answer to this question, as Sarr uses the stage as his platform to celebrate Black identity and pay homage to his philosophical influences.
The work is an elegant marriage between scholars of African culture. The Senegalese writer Sarr is a lifelong academic, a professor of African and diasporic philosophy, and a musician. Rugamba, in addition to being a director and playwright, also founded the Rwandan Arts Initiative and set up a publishing house, Moyo, which publishes authors in African languages.
The play, framed as a radio show, opens with a scene of a recording studio with four wooden booths. A table sits in the center holding half-full water bottles, a laptop, and an integrated audio production board. One electric guitar, one acoustic guitar, and one banjo. And scattered all over the floor is a mess of loose-leaf pages. Laure (Marie-Laure Crochant) is interviewing Dj’djack (Felwine Sarr) about his most recent book Richmond Road, following a conversation between poet René Char and political philosopher Frantz Fanon. Though the two minds never met in life, Dj’djack imagines this conversation, as if he’d seen it in a dream, the two of them exchanging ideas in a restaurant.
This dream begins to play out in a mythic song, as fellow performers Majnun and T.I.E join in a musical vignette about Fanon in Martinique during World War II, presenting a highly poetic and philosophical moment in which the actors embody the voices of Char and Fanon. The four give commendable performances, each taking on the poetry in their own unique way: T.I.E with her enchanting singing, Majnun with his infectious body rhythm, Crochant with her emotional expression of the text, and Sarr with his undeniable authority and charisma as he weaves us in and out of the dreams.
Several of these dreamscapes play out over the course of the work, interspersed with interview questions between Laure and Dj’djack. The vignettes act as answers to the questions about Sarr’s own philosophy in his writing. Each dream is a new complex idea: war, life after a major upheaval, reinvention and identity, poetry, limits, and finally freedom.
T.I.E acts as the Maestra, using a loop on a live soundstage while Majnun lures us in with hypnotic electric guitar, both singing in soulful, mesmerizing harmony. The music and images evoke the ideas and emotions of resistance that Char and Fanon cherished in their writing. For example, the actors marching in unison, calling to Fanon in the Free French Army, when his regiment was not allowed to march with the white soldiers; tearing up the scattered pages of bureaucracy calling to the decolonization of Algiers, resisting the naked violence of Western values, and challenging the colonial organization; and finally, clearing the floor of papers as Dj’djack takes center stage to sing “Highest Bodies,” an intimate moment where he establishes his own identity independent of the histories and philosophies that have formed his selfhood.
War influenced both Fanon and Char in their writings. Char questioned the role of poetry and literature in the face of bloodshed and violence, urging that it is not enough to simply write without action. But Char did not face the racist colonial oppression that Fanon tackles in his work. Fanon strove to “liberate the third worlds from the colonial yoke” and create a habitable world of freedom. He did not want to be defined by his skin color, nation, or history. He writes in his text The Wretched of the Earth, colonialism “forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: Who am I in reality?”
The question of Black identity, of “individual consciousness” as it relates to “collective fate,” is one that Sarr grapples with today. He says that he wants to “liberate the Black man from himself.” He devotes his life to the assessment of Black values, to not be locked in towers of the past. “I am not a prisoner of history. I am endlessly creating myself.” These words are echoes of Fanon, but also of Sarr. He creates this multifaceted idea that an individual is simultaneously their past and history, but also the vision they hold for their future.
This idea culminates beautifully in Dj’djack’s final song. The littered stage is cleared and Sarr, T.I.E, and Majnun sing directly to the audience. Their voices free, each performer claiming their own body and identity.