Chapter 5 - Theater without Borders?
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147 Chapter 5 Theater without Borders? In 2008 I attended a fund-​ raiser that Réseau Education Sans Frontières (RESF) held in an eastern suburb of Paris. Organized around short information sessions on recent developments in Parisian retention centers for immigrants, the event included a community potluck and arts and crafts activities for children. Midway through this fast-​ paced evening was a performance that had been written and directed by Natalie and adapted from narratives the artist had collected from undocumented immigrant women. Natalie’s performance began with the story of Aminata. An actress who had left her West African home for performance engagements in Switzerland in 2003, Aminata had found that she was unable to return when political violence engulfed her city. Her thoughts with the only son that she had left behind, Aminata had entered France illegally , where she had held clandestine jobs, lodged in hotels filled with refugees, and was ultimately rendered homeless. When the lights initially flooded the stage, there was a black woman sitting downstage and to the left, accompanied by a white French woman who stood in the center, narrating Aminata’s story in the first person. Barely moving from her designated spot yet talented at maintaining momentum, the actress often glanced at her stage partner in a reciprocal gaze that was later revealed to have been the signal identifying the black woman as Aminata herself. Soon the two Aminatas, real and rehearsed, were joined by an actress narrating the story of Fatma, a refugee from the Middle East whose narrative centered on the child for whom she had decided to leave the miserable home of her father-​ in-​ law. She was then joined by an actress delivering the narrative of Mariama, also from West Africa, who had left her country of origin in order to provide her daughter with a better education. All three were finally joined by an actress representing Amira, from North Africa, who had arrived with her family to join her sister-​ in-​ law in France only to find that familial hospitality was short-​ lived. Not long after Amira’s narrative was introduced, approximately sixty women flooded the small stage from the sidelines and stood distributed, as motionless as the Aminatas but swiftly breaking into the parts of the four stories they wished to contribute to. As the performance drew to a close and the lights faded, they lingered on the only black woman on stage, the real Aminata, who had remained speechless throughout. 148 Chapter 5 Natalie’s performance constituted my first, fleeting exposure to theatrical immigration activism in Paris, alerting me to the multiple ways that theater was used to address the relationship between immigration, citizenship, and national identity. Yet Natalie’s work also encapsulated a number of principles that were unique to a subgenre of this theatrical activity: a broad array of commercial and noncommercial works that portrayed narratives of exile, displacement, and suffering from undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. This subgenre was permeated by the term témoignage (witnessing ). Referring to the oral accounts of the individuals whose narratives formed the backbone of the performances, témoignage captured the act of witnessing that characterized the relationship between event and narrator as well as that between narrator and listener. The underlying principles of this emergent subgenre borrowed from medical humanitarianism, legal aid, and immigrant social movements, the larger contexts within which an ever-​ growing number of theatrical works on migration were taking place. The values, ideals, and representative practices of these domains were increasingly influencing both how Parisian artists articulated the capacities they attributed to political art, and the explanatory principles they put to use to position themselves in relation to the suffering they wished to portray. In this chapter, I suggest that these imagined capacities and explanatory principles resulted in a humanitarian theater premised on two recurring characteristics, both of which were readily visible in Natalie’s performance. Although the artist drew on the testimonial connotations of témoignage to highlight the truthfulness of the narratives on which her work was based, our conversations soon revealed that her use of the term témoignage involved a subtle negotiation between the subjective and the objective: Natalie’s narrative focus had prioritized poignant anecdotes and moments of emotional appeal, glossing over the dimensions of her interlocutors’ accounts that endowed them with political personhood. These narrative choices prioritized moments of heightened sentiment on the part of her narrators, and as such, they resonated with what scholars like...