Chapter 4 - Rethinking Community and Culture
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119 Chapter 4 Rethinking Community and Culture In the fall of 2005, a series of violent protests of unprecedented size and duration occurred in a number of metropolitan suburbs across France. Variously labeled the protests, émeutes (riots), or révoltes (revolts) of 2005, the events drew a range of reactions from across the political spectrum. Initial commentators identified a religious motivation and interpreted the unrest as evidence of a broader, transnational network of Islamic uprisings. Others bemoaned the breakdown of republican ideals of citizenship, and underlined the anger of racialized, seemingly unintegrated youth. To these commentators the events seemed to signal a deep-​ seated violence against the very idea of France itself. Meanwhile, yet others situated the protests against a lengthier history of confrontation in the French banlieue. Arguing that the unrest was a product of structural conditions, these commentators noted that economic impoverishment, racial discrimination, and increased police violence in urban peripheries had reached a breaking point. In the weeks and months that followed , these interpretations vied for attention in the public imagination, even as most agreed that France was witnessing the collective expression of an economic and social frustration felt by residents in mostly immigrant housing projects. In the Paris suburb of Blanc-​ Mesnil, the protests led to the creation of a women’s collective, Quelques unes d’entre nous (A few from among us), one of whose first activities was a writing workshop where members shared their reactions to the violence. This project soon resulted in a theatrical performance , Le Bruit du monde m’est rentré dans l’oreille (The Sounds of the Crowd Entered My Ear), which chronicled the women’s reactions to the unrest while negotiating the addressee toward whom such a chronicle would direct its grievances. Indeed, Le Bruit du monde featured a series of rhetorical questions that lacked definitive addressees, such as Charlotte’s plaintive query: “What does it mean to be French? They wear us out with this identity thing, is the question of identity specific to Arabs?” This question was meant to be delivered in a sarcastic tone, underlining the elusiveness of the very notion it sought, yet it was borrowed from the entirely tangible lexicon of public debate: what, indeed, was and is French identity? Both before 120 Chapter 4 and after the events of 2005, references to Frenchness were ubiquitous, from televised debates to policy documents, and the term itself often crystallized around the legacy of French republican universalism, positing citizenship as the manifestation of individual attachment to the national community. Republicanism’s counterpoint was cultural communitarianism, the privileging of ethnic, cultural, or religious identity categories over participation in national institutions. And as Charlotte made abundantly clear, this phenomenon was uniquely associated with communities of Arab descent. As ubiquitous as Charlotte’s question was, Le Bruit du monde’s answer did not follow the pattern that I had come to identify in the work of artists of immigrant descent. Charlotte and her compatriots did not call for a counter-​ valorization of difference, nor did they seek to underline the significance of community formations. Despite Charlotte’s reference to an elusively gathered “us,” the play’s politics exceeded a conceptual framework that opposed republican individuality and cultural community. Upon meeting the group and attending several rehearsals in 2008, I was further surprised to note that terms like “culture” or “community” were altogether absent from my conversations. Versed in the conceptual categories of North American theater and performance scholarship, I was puzzled: Quelques unes d’entre nous’s work resonates with the rubric of community-​ based theater, a designation that seeks to identify politically progressive theater practices in which community operates as a structuring ideal. As a group that formed through women’s workshops held at the Maison des Tilleuls, a social center located in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Blanc-​ Mesnil, Quelques unes d’entre nous invites the question of communal affiliation. As a group composed of first-​ generation North African, Middle Eastern, and sub-​ Saharan African women in the final quarter of their lives and younger, second-​ generation women of equally diverse origins, its work is also likely to be identified as an instance of intercultural experimentation, revealing the interactions of “cultures and cultural forms.”1 Where the combination of these rubrics is concerned, Le Bruit du monde is semingly tailor-​ made for consideration beneath the category of cross-​ cultural theater praxis that Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert call “multicultural community theater”: as a domain that “generally incorporates a range...