Bande de bouffons caused roaring laughter and a fair share of self-examination among spectators
Bande de bouffons is an oddly amusing play produced by the Théâtre du Tandem that is certain to pique the curiosity and leave the audience questioning what goes on in the mind of playwright Jean-Philippe Lehoux.
Staged by Jacques Laroche, the play is inspired by a conference led by philosopher Alain Denault titled “Bande de colons” (Bunch of settlers). The play touches on the colonial heritage of Canada and seeks to elucidate the true nature of Quebecois identity as it exists today.
The play was performed in community centres located across the city for three consecutive weeks, ending with the Maison de la culture Claude-Léveillée in Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension, where the crowd broke into a chain of boisterous laughter.
With nothing on stage but two off-white curtains, the lights slowly dimmed until the room was left in complete darkness––the show had begun. Images of a young Queen Elizabeth, the United Kingdom flag and the British Army quickly filled the screen projected onto the curtains. Shortly after, bizarre howling sounds and moans began to echo throughout the auditorium.
The hour that followed was marked by the farcical writing of Lehoux, which at times left the room in an uncomfortable, but never uncalled-for, silence. The cast of five was dressed in what can only be described as bodysuits with tumour-like protruding lumps of styrofoam and stuffing held together by beige stockings.
Rooted in Quebecer culture, the play is told through this singular narrative and uses language that, for the most part, can only be understood by those accustomed to the most inordinate Quebec French lexicon. Take for example the word “colon;” a term that is designated to someone who lives in a colony (i.e. colonizer) and translates to “settler.” In Quebec “colon” is also a pejorative term used to describe someone that is ignorant and/or being idiotic.
The term “colon” is intricately explored throughout the play as cast members seek to define the word that unequivocally applies to so much of the Franco-Quebecois and Canadian population. “The middle class” and “Albertans that want oil projects” are two of the definitions struck me the most.
Having grown up in a rural area of Quebec, I felt as though I was already acquainted with the characters, who seemingly had no sympathy for those dismissively referred to as the “colonized,” instead of recognising their rights as Indigenous peoples. Carrying on playing the role of the “colons,” characters refused to acknowledge the ongoing oppression faced by Indigenous peoples at the hands of the Canadian government and its colonial systems. They were, instead, pleading for the reparation of injustices committed towards French-Quebecers.
“How can we [French-Quebecers] be colonizers when we ourselves were colonized [by the English]?”
Addressing the ongoing oppressions faced by First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations in a play about Quebecer and Canadian identity was a logical and conscious decision. Nevertheless, I found it impossible not to flinch whenever, in-between laughter, an actor squeezed a comment about the suicide crisis among Inuit youth or the lack of access to safe drinking water in Indigenous communities.
Is it possible that the play purposely used the occasional shift away from the self-mockery and pantomime to force audience members to reflect on the injustices we settlers so naturally turn a blind eye to? In a jarring way, it was an opportunity to question identity and scrutinize the many contradictions that prevail in the so-called Canadian and Quebecer identity.
People interested in seeing Bande de bouffons have until Feb. 13 to catch a performance at the Petit Théâtre du Vieux-Noranda.
Photos courtesy of Hugo B. Lefort.