Alone on Stage 2022 presents Traces: My experience of French theater

The piece “Traces,” presented at Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio on September 19 and 20, began with the melodic sound of the kora, a string instrument from West Africa. Lights illuminated the stage, highlighting musician Simon Winse. The music was a trance-inducing force that I felt I could listen to for hours. When actor Étienne Minoungou came on stage and started talking, it reminded me that the play was in French, a language of which I only know a handful of words. I was a little lost during his preface to the show, when the subtitles had yet to appear; as someone who studies spanish, i have tried unsuccessfully to hold on to familiar words.

As the playback began, helpful subtitles appeared on a screen above. From then on, I alternated my attention between the actors playing in French in real time and the English subtitles to make sense of the story. Then something interesting happened – I started to rely less and less on subtitles.

Within an hour, I didn’t suddenly start to understand French. On the contrary, I began to recognize the meaning of certain words, their connotations in the room and the emotions they evoked. Minoungou’s emotion was what really connected me to the language. I could feel his anguish, his exasperation, his hope. I began to follow the history of the African slave trade and its effects on the continent – ​​a story I knew well from history class, but had never experienced in this way before.

During the performance, Minoungou occasionally posed questions to the audience, looking directly at specific people. I didn’t know if it was scripted, but there were no subtitles during that part, so I was lost; only French speakers in the audience could respond. It was an amazing way to include audience participation, and I was captivated even though I didn’t understand the exchange.

At one point he asked a question in the front row, where I was sitting. We locked eyes as he waited for an answer. My “response” was a smile and a nod. Luckily, that was enough – or maybe he sensed my hesitation and graciously continued. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable about the situation as I expected. In fact, engaging with the language added to my fascination. I didn’t speak a word of French, but after that I felt more included in the experience. I wasn’t just watching a show; I was inside.

“Traces”, which is inspired by the lyrical text of the same name by the Senegalese philosopher and poet Felwine Sarr, ends with a call to action. For the last few moments, I focused more on the expressions of the performers than on the words on the screen. Even though I couldn’t tell every word, I came to understand the intention behind them. Still, when the show ended, I wasn’t quite sure it was done. For me, there was no definitive end. First, the portrayal of the actor’s optimism for future change was a message that had lingering continuity. Most of the time, however, hearing the piece in French created a certain temporal fluidity. I wasn’t too caught up in every word, just because I didn’t understand them. Instead, I progressed through the story at my own pace. Although it was slow, it made every word I read, heard, and felt even more meaningful.

Before the play started, as I walked down the hall from the theater studio, it was intimidating and humiliating to hear everyone around me speaking in French. However, at the end of the show, I felt the discomfort was necessary.

When watching Spanish TV shows, I can usually type in the words or go back if needed, but interacting with a different language during a live show was a totally unfamiliar experience. I know this experience won’t stop there and I’m excited to continue my immersion in different languages ​​by exploring various art forms. I also challenge you, reader, to engage in art that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

While the last show of the season took place on September 23, the Princeton French Theater Festival is annual and now in its 12th year, so you will surely have the opportunity to experience the arts in another language, whether with this program or others.

Even after the show was over, I was still transfixed by the lyrics and the music. A phrase that was mentioned several times was “et le temps a passe”, which means “and time has passed”. Indeed, as time went on during the show, I came out of it feeling different than when I entered—completion.

Regina Roberts is a contributing writer for The Prospect at “Prince.” She can be reached at [email protected]or on Instagram at @regina_r17.

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