Monkhead Co-Artistic Director Nico Pimparé discusses his experience working with young adults in Guediawaye, one of Dakar’s most deprived suburbs. He staged an impromptu production of Julius Caesar as part of Voice4Thought, an international Hip-Hop festival on the theme of ‘Radicalisation’.
The result is phenomenal. Children and adults alike are shouting, shoving each other, sweating on each other… Two kids run up to me, out of breath, to ask me for more information on Caesar’s death. The actors playing ‘the crowd’, despite their booming voices which we have been training all week, are completely submerged by the actual audience, and some of the rappers push through the mosh pit to give them microphones. I don’t know whether anyone understands anything anymore. I don’t know whether anyone cares. After Brutus’ speech, comes Mark Anthony’s, and after that there is the lynching of Cinna, an act of barbarous mob violence. For a fleeting moment I get scared for the actress playing Cinna, but that’s silly of me — despite their rowdiness, our audience knows that all of it is just play (forgive the pun).
I am whisked on stage for the bows. The actors our ecstatic. I am ecstatic. I have just witnessed something that money or extra rehearsal time just can’t buy. I don’t know what it is — the outspoken nature of Senegalese culture? The proximity of real political violence? The pride of my illiterate cast at having appropriated a 400 year old text? The fact that this audience rarely, if ever, sees theatre? Or just the hyping of our play by a gang of twenty freestyle rappers? In any case, I have witnessed an audience not only see a play about political radicalisation, but play the act of radicalising themselves. It has been an actual act of catharsis.
I am in Guediawaye, one of the most destitute suburbs of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. To be precise, I am at ‘G Hip Hop’, the HQ of rapper and political activist Fou Malade. Fou Malade became a national icon after he co-founded ‘Y’en a Marre’, a group of Senegalese journalists and rappers credited with helping to mobilise Senegalese youth to oust President Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 following his controversial bid for a third term.
When my plane left London, less than three weeks ago, I had no idea that all of this would happen; all I had was a friends’ place to crash at and a return ticket one month later. But it all fell into place very quickly.
On Saturday the 4th of November, three days after landing, I had lunch at the family home of Fou Malade with his brother, his sister and one of his two wives. The meeting was held in true Senegalese style; the key words being hospitality and time (lots of it). After a long lunch of fish and rice, many cups of tea, a couple of spliffs and a very prolonged nap, he drove me to Guediawaye, on the outskirts of Dakar.
There, he asked me to create a piece of theatre to present at the upcoming international Hip-Hop festival he was hosting, Voice4Thought. The play was to be performed on Saturday the 18th, exactly two weeks later. It had to incorporate elements of Hip-Hop and to fit the festival’s theme: political radicalisation.
Outside ‘G Hip Hop’, I got a shave. I paid the barber 250 CFA Francs, the equivalent of 35 pence, after which, as it was dinner time, the barber offered me a meal. His wife and children entered the tiny salon and we all gathered around a large bowl of fish and rice. For the second time in one day I ate for free. Senegalese hospitality is tangible.
Cut to Saturday the 11th, the first rehearsal day, a week before the show. I am in G Hip Hop, surrounded by an expectant cast: four women and four men, all in their early to late 20s. Sitting around us are a bunch of other young people, who I will later learn are wives and friends of the actors, as well as an older character referred to as ‘uncle’, who will observe rehearsals every day without me ever knowing who he is or why he is present.
I should also describe G Hip Hop in more detail: it is a huge open space bordered on one side with a stage and on all other sides with little bunker like buildings which serve as offices, beat labs, meeting spaces and kitchens. We rehearse in a shaded area right in the middle of the open space, surrounded by rappers and rastas, who sit in the open air or wade from one bunker to the next. Beats come out of every door that is opened. There is also a group of children, who interrupt their games every so often to observe the rehearsal.
People who work in theatre in the UK will know how much the privacy of rehearsal spaces is valued. We often talk of ‘safe spaces’, where people can speak intimately, can fail, can do strange warm up games. Well, there is none of that here in Guediawaye. And I’m having a ball! The connection with the audience, which we struggle to achieve on London stages, is already established. People are laughing, reacting, coming to me with suggestions, encouraging the actors… There are no taboos. At least I don’t think there are. I find myself being as ridiculous a director as I am in London. I am lying on the floor, propped at an awkward angle on the edge of a chair. I have lost my script – someone from the audience hands it to me. I lose a flip flop as I scurry to the other side of the rehearsal space to note an actor. Everyone laughs. The audience is with us. We’re making this together.
The play we’ve decided on is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is Act II Scene 2, where, following Julius Caesar’s assassination, Brutus and Mark Anthony deliver speeches to an unhinged crowd. It is a powerful examination of radicalisation: Mark Anthony famously turns the gullible crowd against Brutus and incites a civil war.
The casting is done in seconds. Out of the eight actors, only two speak French: they will play the politicians Brutus and Mark Anthony. The rest play the crowd. In a country where French is the official language, not speaking it is synonymous with not having gone to school. It saddens me to realise that 75% of my cast, who are in their twenties, are illiterate.
I realise that the same will apply to the audience, and this gives me an idea. The crowd will speak in Wolof (the most widespread local language). And because the crowd’s main role in the scene is to react to the speeches, they essentially repeat what has been said by the French speaking politicians, thus providing a live Wolof translation. This should make both French speakers and Wolof speakers happy, and capture the theme of language and class barriers in West African politics.
Saturday the 18th. After a week of rehearsals, voice workshops and Stanislavsky classes, it is show time. Our lights & sound operator is the in house DJ. Our Brutus, Momo, is wearing my leather shoes and a suit he has borrowed from his brother. Our Mark Anthony, renamed Antonia, is played by a young woman, Thiate, who is wearing an elegant traditional dress. She has never had the chance to try the scene out on stage as she missed yesterday’s dress rehearsal (her parents wouldn’t allow her to do theatre anymore, and she has sneaked out on some other pretext to come today).
The crowd, of about 400, is electric. They have been warmed up by an endless succession of freestyle rappers spitting rhymes on stage. I have actually had to intervene after the twentieth of these, as it’s nearing 11PM and stress and exhaustion are getting the better of me and my cast. The rappers vacate the stage. The DJ hits his cue. Caesar’s dead body, carried by the chanting crowd, comes through the audience and is dumped on stage. They disperse into the audience – we have taken advantage of the Hip Hop setting and our ‘crowd’ is in the actual mosh pit throughout the scene. They call Brutus on stage. He reluctantly comes forward, holds a microphone and addresses the people:
“Romans, Countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear.”