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Reimaginations of "America" and Cultural Identity in the Expatriate Drama of Koffi Kwahulé

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 343-366 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0031

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The first of the two main points I would like the reader to take away from this essay is that, at least since the 1960s, "America" (USA) has become an important, consequential trope in world drama, one that deserves a lot more attention than scholarship has paid it. My recently published American "Unculture" in French Drama , for instance, covers a great number of post-1960 plays about "America" written by French continental dramatists, plays which assume an all-American perspective and focus on American people and places. It examines in particular the French fascination with what I call, after Jean Baudrillard and Régis Debray, the "unculture" of a postmodern type of "homo americanus," representing an (anti-)intellectual mind-set, an exceptionalist self-image, and a materialistic lifestyle that are globally prominent but concentrated in the United States—which brings me to the second point I would like to make. The trope of "America" tells a somewhat different story when it issues from a different selection of the world's francophone population, one with a dissimilar geopolitical history and a contrasting and turbulent cultural reality. A working comparison between the continental French plays about America and the ways in which today's generation of postcolonial francophone dramatists responds to "America" in their writing shows that the latter shift their attention from any "reality" of American "unculture" and toward an idealized notion of America as a model for their own perspective on globalizing humanity. Koffi Kwahulé stands out for his dramaturgical fascination with the subject of America, and this essay will cover two of his plays that draw heavily on this subject.

In culinary lingo the recipe for my discussion of Kwahulé's America plays would read as follows: take one West African expatriate dramatist (a product, in part, of both the specific artistic framework and the humanistic vitality of the Ivorian source culture), one prominent Western European culture (the intellectual and artistic infrastructures being equally enriched by France's unique sociopolitical freedoms and problematized by its history of colonial and postcolonial abuses and its remnant racism), and one mediated/media-assisted idea of a super-hegemonic global culture: America. Bring them all together and you're likely to produce a planetary stew of the "world-totality" kind, as Edouard Glissant might envision it.

What does Edouard Glissant mean when he expresses the future of humanity in terms of "world-totality"? In culinary terms, once again, he's talking not so much about a (subtle yet predictable) cosmopolitan dining experience as about a much less predictable and more randomly constituted creole potluck , which Glissant believes will be the dietary (read "cultural") staple of the global village yet to come. Something of an outspoken visionary in the field of world culture-making, Glissant warns Westerners that, in the move toward "world-totality," they must get used to the idea of sacrificing their "unique root identity" for a relational or rhizomatic identity: "that is, the root that digs down but that also extends its branches laterally toward other roots." "World-totality," Glissant believes, will depend on our progress toward a transnational creolization, involving the "contact, conflict, attraction, harmony, repulsion, dissemblance, resemblance between cultures of the world," resulting in what he calls "a chaos-world [,] not because it is a world in disorder, but because it is an unpredictable world." Today's generation of African writers, I believe, see themselves to some extent as both reconnaissance outriders and progenitors on humanity's journey toward a reconciliation with this "chaos-world." They act, as a character from one of Koffi Kwahulé's plays puts it, as "the elder sons of the world."

Setting aside the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversities among African nations, francophone Africa is well placed historically and culturally to spearhead the move toward the global village. The continent, with its many tribes and nations, has been dynamically involved in world-making since the beginnings of the global slave trade in the seventeenth century. Consequently, post-independence, postcolonial African intellectual classes have become remarkably conscious of their role in both involuntary and voluntary processes of world-making, from Africans' forced displacement into slavery in the West, to their colonial domination and then the...

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