Chapter 1 - On the Paris Stage
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35 Chapter 1 On the Paris Stage By 1975, Al Assifa was showing signs of wear and tear. The Paris-​ based Arab-​ French theater troupe had been touring their immigration-​ themed play throughout France. In a meeting on October 12, a troupe member looked back, diagnosing the group’s problems: “We often lived as though we were a community, but it is a community that was in fact a fiction . . . This is probably the most important reason as to why we had crises, crises which erupted over the smallest details.”1 While this member dispelled the notion that immigration activism sufficed to unify a group composed of French nationals and North African immigrants, troupe member Mokhtar went further in another, undated meeting: “Often, it is only the acting that brings us together. That is insufficient and dangerous for our continuation.”2 Later in the conversation, another voice added: “We must install ourselves in a neighborhood, take it, and then animate it.”3 Today, these voices illustrate a series of questions that vexed 1970s theater practitioners, cultural policy-​ makers, and immigration activists. Of what did animation, the strengthening of communities through arts practices, consist? How were cultural activities to be implanted in low-​ income, disadvantaged neighborhoods and rural regions across the nation? Of what did community consist? If political goals were shared by individuals with radically different political statuses (e.g., citizens vs. temporary residents), how could they rally for the universality of labor injustices while honoring the particulars of the era’s social discriminations? Of what did theatrical acting consist? An intimate endeavor that could provide the illusion of community, what role did this aesthetic practice have in denouncing social conditions? Did actors simply “take” neighborhoods and cultivate stories from their struggles, or did actors have a story and struggle of their own, as these brief exchanges immediately reveal? On whom then, was the work of acting spent? In this chapter I arrive at these questions, and thus the particulars of 1970s theater activism concerning questions of immigration, via the Arab-​ French theater troupes Al Assifa and La Kahina. Founded in Paris by a group of North African and French laborers and students, Al Assifa performed sketches on immigrant workers’ experiences in France, from encounters 36 Chapter 1 with institutional racism to workplace and housing conditions. They toured until the group’s 1977 dissolution, reaching audiences that ranged from trade unions and humanitarian groups to rural agricultural communities. La Kahina was founded in 1976 by Salikha Amara, a young woman of Algerian origin whose family had settled in the northeastern Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers. Troubled by the gender bias that plagued immigration politics, Amara organized friends, family, and other activists and wrote a series of plays that portrayed Algerian women’s lives on both sides of the Mediterranean . Examined in unison, Al Assifa and La Kahina’s theatrical work are dually revelatory. On the one hand, they reflect the rapidly changing sociopolitical terrains of their era, for the references to community, solidarity, and theatricality related above are indelibly linked to the role of the “immigrant” in an evolving polity. On the other hand, the troupes’ work outlines the manner in which these changes manifested themselves in theatrical practices, rendering the theater into a space where strategies for empowering immigrant political subjects revealed their potentials, contradictions, and limits. Al Assifa and La Kahina’s work serves as a useful historical background for understanding the aesthetic forms and social contexts of contemporary theater and immigration activism. For example, questions that beset theatrical representations of immigration in the 1970s, such as the ambivalent portrayal of racial or ethnic difference, set the terrain for later practitioners. Likewise, transformations in how this era understood the social dimensions of artistic self-​ expression resonate with recent debates among nongovernmental organizations devoted to cultural activism. These continuities will become apparent throughout the chapters that follow. That said, this chapter is devoted to a set of contingencies that were unique to 1970s France, however ongoing their effects. I will argue that the era’s theatrical immigration activism bore witness to a transition from a form of politics that underlined the racial division of labor and the gendered histories of migration, to a politics of difference premised on the recognition of (an often singularly defined) immigrant identity. To be clear, this was a transition that took place both beyond the domain of theater and beyond the national borders of France during the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forming the backbone of...