Joseph Boulogne is one of the most influential composers of all time, but his name is little known outside of a small circle of devout fans and classical music students.
His life reads like an overblown novel. Though music remained his first love, Boulogne was also an accomplished swordsman, swimmer, dancer, horseman, and lover. Some say he was the inspiration for the character of D’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers; others say Boulogne had an affair with Marie-Antoinette.
And yet, one thing kept him back: the colour of his skin. Born in Guadeloupe in 1745 to a wealthy French plantation owner and an African slave woman, Boulogne was raised in France as an aristocrat. He was known variously as the Chevalier St. George, Black Mozart, and the “Voltaire of music.” Boulogne’s life and work were subject to the laws of Le Code Noir, a royal decree set out in 1685 to govern slaves and enforce Catholicism on French colonies. Frustrated at every turn, Boulogne died in squalor and obscurity.
Now, his story has come to Montreal. The Black Theatre Workshop, the world’s only African-Canadian theatre company, is staging the world premiere of Le Code Noir at the Segal Centre. Written by George Boyd and directed by Richard Donat, Le Code Noir attempts to piece together the mystery of Boulogne’s life.
The play opens in a shabby room, where an aged and washed up Boulogne (Tyrone Benskin, artistic director of the Black Theatre Workshop) is tossing back obscene amounts of absinthe. He vacillates between past and present. Eventually, a black journalist called Duhamel Lachappel finds Boulogne to ask for his story. Through hallucinations and flashbacks, we discover the sadness and brilliance of the composer’s life.
We learn from a contrived confrontation between the protagonist’s father (Keir Cutler) and the governor of Guadeloupe (Frank Fontaine) that Boulogne would be treated as an acknowledged son. Though that decision is controversial, it is grounded in self-interest rather than love; as a young violin virtuoso, Boulogne opened all the best doors in Europe for his family.
Subsequent scenes establish his doomed relationship with a white married woman, Marie-Joseph Valmont (Stefanie Buxton). When Boulogne joyfully informs her of a professional engagement in Vienna, she reveals she is pregnant with his child. The consequences of his returning a month later than expected are disquieting for everyone.
Le Code Noir is finely staged on the whole, but leaves viewers unsatisfied. At an hour and 15 minutes, it barely scrapes the surface of his life. In a truly wasted opportunity, his mother Nanon (Adrienne Mei Irving) barely puts in an appearance. Benskin plays Boulogne with gusto, but perhaps flashback scenes would’ve been better served by a younger actor. To watch the seasoned actor clutch the much-younger Irving like a son is a bit incongruous.
On the other hand, Brett Watson steals the spotlight as de Beaumont, a cross-dressing spy and fencer who inspires one of Boulogne’s compositions. His appearance is preceded by cries of “yoo-hoo!” and a hooting laugh, providing perhaps the only comic relief of the entire play. Buxton delivers the most emotionally loaded moment of the play, transformed by tragedy from a kittenish society girl to a shell of her former self.
Still, Boulogne’s story is worth telling. And even if some of the performances are a bit flawed, viewers will be thankful to learn about this remarkable man’s life.
Le Code Noir runs at the Studio of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts (5170 C