Chapter 2 - Prendre la Parole
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63 Chapter 2 Prendre la Parole In an early moment from the popular stage actress Rachida Khalil’s one-​ woman show, La Vie rêvée de Fatna (Fatna’s Dream Life), the young Moroccan woman Fatna boasts to her neighbor that her husband is off arranging visas for them to immigrate to France. Their destination, she notes enthusiastically, is “the country of the rights of man.”1 Undeterred by her invisible neighbor’s blasé reaction, she repeats the phrase and adds that in France “a word that is given is a word that is respected” (une parole donn ée est une parole respectée). As she utters this line, Khalil releases a peal of laughter that breaks the imagined wall separating the diegetic world from the auditorium and reveals the Moroccan-​ French actress’s own amusement at Fatna’s assertion. France, the country of the rights of man? France, the land where a word given is a word kept? Over the course of La Vie rêvée de Fatna, these assertions are both evacuated and confirmed as the show counterposes Khalil’s alter ego, the emancipated Moroccan-​ French actress Karima, and her childhood friend and aunt Fatna, whose parallel life in a small village in the mountains of Rif haunts her for illustrating what her own path could have been: an arranged marriage during her teenage years, early motherhood, and limited participation in public life. Needless to say, the show is rife with the problems that underline the binary positioning of these two women, yet it is also often the first to question it, pushing both stereotypes to their limits. Fatna ’s emotional life proves richer than the imagination of the producers with whom Karima battles for non-​ typecasted roles, and the country of human rights is depicted as presiding over a crumbling and cruel welfare system. Given this commentary, Khalil’s amusement at the suggestion that in France “a word that is given is a word that is respected” can be read as a reference to the nation’s unkept promise to its immigrant population. Yet the line also begs to be read in a self-​ referential manner, highlighting the premise of the performance itself: that the words given out to the audience will be kept and respected by them, “integrated into public memory and social knowledge in such a way that, directly or indirectly, it will make a material difference.”2 Khalil’s ambivalent commentary on the theatrical “word” foreshadows a series of dynamics at the intersection of immigration, personal narrative, 64 Chapter 2 and theatrical performance in early twenty-​ first-​ century Paris. In the phrase “une parole donnée est une parole respectée,” the term parole constitutes a reference to a word that is given, a promise that has been made. The term’s everyday usage, however, can vary from designating the literal words that exit the mouth of a speaker to that individual’s speech more broadly, the particular snippets of communication that they send into the world. In certain instances, it can designate the sum total of the communication that that individual has with the world, a sphere that is assumed to have an authoritative link to that individual’s interiority and that thus references a meaning akin to an individual’s voice (as in the phrase “I want my voice to be heard”). Over the course of my research on immigration and theater in Paris, the phrase prendre la parole (literally “taking the word,” or taking speech) was one that I encountered often. Depending on the context and the emotional force with which it was spoken, I translated the phrase as speaking, speaking up, taking the floor, making one’s voice heard, and seizing speech. The connotations that prendre la parole could carry thus ran from a reference to an enunciated word to the entirety of a person being thrust into the public eye, an experience often glossed as synonymous with that person’s experience of their personal agency. In turn, this wide spectrum was reflected in the ease with which theatrical orality was endowed with moral meaning, and nowhere more so than in immigrant women’s theater. The polyvalence of parole is central to this chapter’s claim regarding the relationship between immigration, gender, and theatrical performance. Indeed, my argument is that immigrant women’s theater in early twenty-​ first-​ century Paris endowed performed personal speech with an imagined urgency, and identified public recognition as its moral mandate. In the...


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