Lab Project

Conakry Play Urban

Lionel Manga

In the field of the performing arts, what does it mean to “make do with”’ or to “do without” when you want to introduce an artistic gesture into a complex context combining scarcity, political uncertainty, economic stagnation and despair—which was the case in Guinea in November 2019, under Alpha Condé? Formulated as a subject for reflection, this consideration echoes the overwhelming sense of despair I felt prior to the creation of the play The Survivors—an impossible challenge I found myself faced with on my first “getting to know you” trip to Conakry in April 2019. I can still hear Jean Christophe Lanquetin saying, with an air of absolute conviction and just a hint of mischief, “But you’re a playwright, Lionel!” Me? A playwright? Where on earth did he get that idea? I had never put on a single play in my whole life! How had this come about? What did Lanquetin and his accomplice François Duconseille have in mind by roping me into this unlikely adventure?


The circus artists

When François Duconseille told me about the Univers des Mots festival in Conakry during one of our Messenger conversations, it was the first time I’d heard of it. And when he suggested working on the creation of a show with circus artists, the idea appealed to me at once. Circus artists? I began to imagine trapezists and acrobats performing breathtaking feats, and saw myself engaged in lofty discussions on gravity and vertigo—part of a high-flying troupe, in other words. Fired with enthusiasm, I arrived in Conakry in the afternoon of April 14, 2019, looking forward to the meeting with the circus artists scheduled for the next morning.

When the so-called artists turned up and were introduced to me, it would be an understatement to say I came crashing down to earth! The hopes of high-flying conversation I’d been cherishing for weeks—indeed months—in my Douala hermitage went up in smoke, giving way to a sort of desert, a justifiably disturbing empty page: most of my new associates spoke not a single word of French, except for one or two who seemed to be making it up as they went along... Wow! Where was I? What had the Strasbourg duo got me into? I tried to dispel a growing sense of ambush: why would my partners in criticism of the Faustian world set me a trap? Was my bewilderment obvious? Well yes, of course it was! I tried to hide it, but they were bound to notice… and anyway, I made no secret of my raging disappointment to my interlocutors! I’d just have to make do with what was available… so there I was, in a state of total perplexity. I’d been pushed outside my comfort zone—how would I deal with it? It was a huge challenge that kept me awake at night in my rented apartment bedroom.



Compared to what I’d imagined, what I saw of the young troupe’s acrobatic and juggling skills left me somewhat underwhelmed. The gravity-defying stunts they performed were rehashed classical numbers: pyramids and double flips (what we used to call somersaults, in Douala). The ad-hoc intermediary had briefed me before they arrived: basically, the idea of leaving for the mirage of Europe appealed to them as much as it had to their compatriots who’d already set out despite all the known mortal dangers. It is noteworthy that most of the unaccompanied minors in Paris are Guinean—a statistical fact that tells us only one thing: there’s no future for them in their homeland, so they try their luck elsewhere.

As the hours went by, I muddled my way forward, attempting to grasp their understanding of their place in postcolonial Guinean society, as members of impoverished families. A memory occurred to me: the low esteem in which daredevils of their kind were held by sanctimonious folk in 1960s Cameroon, where they were regarded as good-for-nothings. At one point during our awkward conversation I asked, with a translator’s help, “What do they call you here?” and, once they’d understood the question, “Fouyanté!” was their unhesitating answer. And naturally, a fouyanté is a halfwit, a loser. I could all too well imagine the jeering, the sidelong glances… I know how hard it can be for having experienced it myself. The status of outcast is a particularly enlightening one.

This gave me some useful leverage however: I could help these youngsters build up a positive social identity despite the chronic denigration they endure. This cleansing process was essential—a sine qua non—before I could begin to think of how we might work on a project together. “From now on, guys, you’re Survivors!” I said, and once I’d said it, I endeavored to explain what I meant: considering the ravages of malaria (and the toddlers who bear the brunt of it), considering the many other endemic African diseases and the countless non-health related causes of death, and considering all those who have lost their lives in the Sahara or the Mediterranean, these guys were true Survivors.

We spent the following days of this getting-to-know-you phase at their usual haunt, the “Blue Zone” in Kaloum (built by Bolloré). I had no clear idea of where I was heading. I couldn’t give them a text—they didn’t speak French. So what form would this project take now that it was no longer the collaborative effort I’d imagined? When we went our separate ways two weeks later, after putting together the sketchy outline of an urban tableau (to see who would be best at portraying which street character), I set them a homework task: to begin each day, before setting foot outdoors, with a sort of self-motivational mantra: “I’m a Survivor! I’m a Survivor! I’m a Survivor!”



 Back home in Douala, I had six months ahead of me to rustle up something that could be presented at the Univers des Mots festival in November. The days went by. Sometimes, on starless, moonless nights, I wondered how I’d ever got myself into such a paradoxical pickle: how could I relate my project to the theme of words when the Survivors didn’t understand French? In view of this considerable handicap, what would we say and how would we present it? In the still dead of night, a reedy little voice kept whispering “Why not turn things to your advantage and take a spectacular gamble?” When someone gives you an opportunity, you don’t bungle it... The days passed and the incubation period ran its course, (in dormant botanical mode).

By the time I arrived in Conakry for the festival, I had developed a cruciform stage design that created a tension between four aspects of African daily life since the conspicuous failure of Independence: Power and Bureaucracy formed one axis, with Dissipation and Debauchery forming a perpendicular one, while a Graduate went back and forth along the first. When I was asked to present my proposals in a short 30-second video a few weeks before the event, I said it would be a poem. The generic concept of “design” freed me from any formal preconceptions. It was also becoming increasingly clear that, to bring words into being, I’d have to give it my all. But how I would do it remained a total mystery until an idea suddenly came to me as I sat at my table facing the window, while the sea on the horizon threatened to come crashing vengefully down tsunami-style: “Why not write a text in tribute to your teenage hero Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture?”1 After all, he’d lain here virtually forgotten for the past 21 years...


The pyrotechnic duo

Wherever this inspiration came from, it suited my frame of mind with regard to the context in Guinea, where Alpha Condé had decided to change the constitution to seek a third term in office.2 The evocation of my hero would help me detach myself from an incredibly irritating present without losing sight of it altogether. I got it into my head that I’d present a portrait of him, and one night, while searching for a reliable track, I found myself in a dance hall where the band played a series of pop numbers before launching into Hasta Siempre—the song for the valiant and immortal Che Guevara; the whole audience sang along, and it was amazing.

Then the HEAR (Haute École des Arts du Rhin) in Strasbourg, a partner of the festival, sent out a crew of young scenographers, first timers in Africa, and two of them—Anton Grandcoin and Gabriella Ritz—fell to my charge.

My basic proposal—the cruciform design with its four poles—was flimsy, but appealing and inspirational in terms of its ambition. The pyrotechnic duo began to pad it out, giving it greater theatrical impact by, for example, piling up rainbow-colored plastic chairs to represent absolute power and its distance from ordinary people, and giving the installation process a rhythmic choreography. With none of the despicable whining of privileged WEIRD3 people who find themselves sojourning in regions lacking conveniences, the duo’s wholehearted involvement in the creation of this unusual play in Conakry went beyond the helpful and verged on the devotional! Gabriella even burned herself on the exhaust pipe of a motorbike while buying materials for the production needs of this unlikely poem on historical incompleteness.

For the ten days or so before the opening night, we designed and put together as best we could an undefinable object that dealt in an unconventional, offbeat way with the aborted promise of African emancipation. The addition of a stage door, in the form of a portico contributed by architects from Vienna led by the waiflike Baerbel Mueller, completely transformed the designated performance space on this barren, dusty wasteland surrounded by corrugated iron shacks and refreshment stalls with their motley crew of customers. We often had to wait for a football match to end before we could rehearse, at dusk, observed by the regulars as they sipped their drinks (mostly beer brewed and sold by the Castel group).4 The blend of rustic and contemporary formed a wonderful resonance, an almost perfect harmony, enhancing the poetic power of The Survivors.


Less is more

Admittedly, the South is not the North and, as we know all too well, standards are not the same. There is nothing ontological about this discrepancy—a pure product of history—which is also represented by a series of antinomies such as rigor/laxity, planning/improvisation and salubrity/insalubrity to name but a few, still prevalent in many so-called “cultivated” consciences. When confronted with these contexts in Africa, informed by specific frames of reference and following in the wake of situatedness, creators go with the flow by playing the contextualization card: there, I’ve said it! The adjustment sometimes stems from a subtle appreciation of often complex situations and locations, but this indulgence often covers a lurking miserabilism that comes to the fore to the detriment of a culture of high standards. Is a lack of punctuality, for example, more acceptable in Douala than in Paris? Why should turning up for an appointment at the agreed time and place not have the same value in each city, if not for a shallow demagogy that is flourishing and gaining ground?

According to British anthropologist Tim Ingold, “We are accustomed to think of making as a project. This is to start with an idea in mind of what we want to achieve, and with a supply of the raw material needed to achieve it. And it is to finish at the moment the material has taken on its intended form.”5 But Ingold categorically rejects this widespread hylomorphic approach, preferring “to think of making as a process of growth.”6 And he continues: “To read making longitudinally, as a confluence of forces and materials, rather than laterally, as a transposition from image to object, is to regard it as such a form-generating — or morphogenetic — process.”7 This powerful reflection on material production applies equally well to the approach I adopted from start to finish in the creation of The Survivors.

After five hundred years of hegemony on every level, acknowledgment of the inevitable provincialization of the West in the wake of postcolonial refutation does not imply compromise or indulgence with regard to the flaws that plague the southern countries and societies. A sound system, for example, needs regular maintenance; if that maintenance is lacking and it starts to crackle, there’s no point accusing the machine of capriciousness in a pitiful outburst of animism. We should stop taking God’s children for wild geese to be shot on sight! Poverty can be honorable and doesn’t necessarily entail indignity, still less irrationality. Less is more, in many ways, but this ecologically-minded refrain should not be used to legitimize a lack of quality. Obstacles are obstacles, in the South and the North alike. So why should I bow and scrape before a local bigwig when a rehearsal has been scheduled for that exact time and bootlicking isn’t my style? Northerners should stop looking to the South for redemption from the Faustian villainy of History. Chameleons contextualize marvelously in their varied natural environment, but I’m not entirely sure I’m one of them... not yet, at any rate. Contextualizing can lead to jumping on the bandwagon, and by the time you realize your mistake the damage has been well and truly done. To “make do with” is also to ‘’do without’’ and the two go together like the heads and tails of a single coin. Something mildly contemptuous, an unacknowledged form of arrogance, can sometimes lie beneath the innocuous appearance of contextualization…

1 Stokely Carmichael, charismatic leader and honorary prime minister of the Black Panthers in the USA, theorized the concept of systemic racism. Hounded by the FBI, he left the US for good in 1969

2 At his reelection in 2015, Alpha Condé solemnly promised not to run for office again but now intends to change the constitution to allow for a third term…

3 Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic

4 The leading French wine group and second-largest producer of beer and soft drinks in Africa, where it generates over 80% of its turnover (source: Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2018)

5 p. 59, Making, Anthropology, Art and Architecture, Tim Ingold (Routledge, London and New York, 2013), pp. 20-22

6 Tim Ingold, op cit., p. 60

7 Tim Ingold, op cit., p. 61