nytheatre.com review by Ben Trawick-Smith
June 25, 2010
Bintou, presented by The Movement Theatre Company, is one of the most assured productions I've seen from a young theatre company in quite some time. With a perfect cast, a sumptuous translation, and laser-sharp direction, this is a wonderful opportunity to see international theatre that is both challenging and completely accessible.
Koffi Kwahule, Bintou's author, spent his life in both Cote D'Ivoire and France, and his play is a searing exploration of Europe's colonial legacy. Set in one of Western society's countless immigrant ghettoes, the story follows a teenage girl, Bintou, who lives with her traditional African family in an unnamed European city. Disillusioned by her troubled home life, she spends her days roaming the streets with a band of mischievous high schoolers who call themselves the Wild Dogs. Bintou bewitches the young men in her gang with her beauty and budding sexuality, and the group's behavior becomes increasingly violent and outrageous. As her family senses that her life is spiraling out of control, they decide to take the drastic step of performing female circumcision, the controversial procedure in some African cultures whereby a young woman's clitoris is surgically removed. As their plans for Bintou collide with her growing power on the streets of their community, the play reaches its startling climax.
As dark as this story sounds, Kwahule's script plays as a brilliant social satire of both African and European culture. Bintou's family, despite their adherence to traditionalism, is as dysfunctional and petty as any other clan. The girl's father (who never appears onstage), spends his days in bed depressed by his unemployment. Bintou's aunt is bitter and overbearing. Her uncle, meanwhile, claims to be disgusted by his niece's sexually provocative dress while not-so-subtly harboring an insatiable lust for her.
Bintou's schoolmates are equally ridiculous. The children of immigrants, they immerse themselves in Western "ghetto" culture without understanding the meaning of their own behavior. In a series of overlapping monologues, the gang regales us with stories of outlandish criminal acts (burning down schools, killing strangers in cold blood) yet it is hard to believe what they say is true. At heart, the teenagers in Bintou seem like awkward play-actors, neither confident in the culture of their parents, nor in the lifestyle they have adopted.
Kwahule's play has some structural flaws. It takes a few surrealistic detours in the middle stretch that sometimes threaten to send the play flying off the rails. However, his facility with language is breathtaking. The dialogue is poetic yet strangely authentic. The characters are endowed with highly stylized gestures and quirks, yet always feel fundamentally real.
These strengths are reinforced by Chantal Bilodeau's masterful translation from Kwahule's native French. Bilodeau creates a script that feels simultaneously foreign and utterly immediate. While we never forget that these characters are from a different culture, the universality of their experience is not lost for a second.
The cast is uniformly superb. As Bintou, Adenike Thomas certainly possesses the character's poetic beauty, but also seems like a painfully authentic teenage girl. Willie Teacher, as Bintou's uncle, is alternately hilarious, pathetic, and affecting. As the Wild Dogs, Jonan Everett, Chinaza Uche, Zachary Webber, and Von Ali Wright give high-velocity performances, nailing their characters' youthful energy and confusion. What is most remarkable about the entire cast is their facility with language. Each actor invests Kwahule's muscular poetry with rare passion and clarity.
The technical elements of the show are some of the most seamless I've ever seen in an indie theater production. John Jalandoni's set utilizes the Harlem School of the Art's wonderful warehouse space to gritty effect. T. Rick Hayashi's lights are boldly colorful yet never overpowering. Jesca Prudencio's costumes are flawless and gorgeous.
Bintou is a triumph for director David Mendizabal, a young director of uncommon intelligence and power. His facility with actors is remarkable, eliciting performances that never seemed forced or over-directed. He weaves a daunting number of elements into a flawless whole, and his understanding of the political background of his source material is clear. With this production, Mendizabal and The Movement Theatre Company establish themselves as a vibrant, stunningly talented voice in New York theatre.