Listen to the UVa Today radio report featuring Stephanie Bérard:
April 21, 2009 — Stephanie Bérard said that when she first started researching Caribbean theater, the reaction she got – from both those in the Caribbean and elsewhere – was "Is there a Caribbean theater?"
Bérard, an assistant professor of French at the University of Virginia, attributes that response to the fact that many of the plays are not written down and published, and many of the performances take place in small theaters and are not well-publicized. That is a also why, compared to Caribbean novels and poetry, Caribbean theater is a not often studied in universities.
She discovered the vibrant theater scene while teaching high school French on Guadeloupe.
"When I started to work there, it was a huge revelation for me in terms of the history, in terms of the impact of colonization on what Caribbean culture is. The language – the literature – I had no idea how rich it was," Bérard said.
Bérard focused her research on Guadeloupe and Martinique, two islands in the French Indies that are part of France. The islands' multicultural identity, a blend of Caribbean, African and European heritages, has produced a theater that reflects a unique perspective on the history and life of the islands.
Bérard spent four years there and has just released a book, "Théâtres des Antilles: traditions et scènes contemporaines," published by L'Harmattan, Paris.
It was "necessary to get in touch with the people, with the theater companies and to work not only on the text itself where it is written, but also with the performance," Bérard said.
Her book covers more than 40 years of theater beginning in the 1960s and '70s, "when theater provided an affirmation of identity and the resistance against French power that was strong. Theater in Creole was spread out everywhere. The aim was to make people aware of cultural alienation and to engage them in the fight for independence," she said.
Guadeloupeans and Martinicans speak both Creole and French, two languages which are used in different situations. Creole is a language more spoken then written and is used in informal contexts and often regarded as the expression of an Antillean popular oral culture. French, the official language, is considered as the expression of a high culture.
Half the plays Bérard writes about are based on Creole tradition and thus have never been written down. These plays provide a rich resource for Bérard's performance analysis.
"The use of the Creole language in theater becomes a tool to revalue a language which has been devalued by the French, and it's also a way to prove that Creole is a language itself," she said.
To that end, Creole plays incorporate Caribbean music and dance as well as cultural and religious rituals of Carnival, voodoo and the drum ritual known as gwoka. Playwrights also adapted and translated Western theater to Creole – works of Shakespeare, Molière and Sophocles – as a way to address political issues. Bérard discusses all these aspects in her book.
As the islands have become less insular and travel outside more prevalent, influences from the United States, Canada and Europe have been incorporated, with playwrights taking on themes of exile, immigration, exploitation, and economic and social difficulties.
"Depending on what period you are talking about, there are different faces of Caribbean theater," Bérard said.
As she travels to conferences around the world, Bérard is slowly noticing more awareness of Caribbean theater. Whether it is at conferences devoted to theater, French literature or post-colonial studies, she said that when she shows pictures of the performances, people are always amazed at the diversity, richness and sophistication of Caribbean theater.
At U.Va., Bérard teaches a seminar on Caribbean theater that is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. She is working with an interdisciplinary team in drama, anthropology and music to bring a Caribbean theater company to Grounds in the fall.
"I decided to do my Ph.D. on Caribbean theater because theater is outside of literary boundaries and it is connected to a lot of other disciplines — music, dance, theater politics, history, society, anthropology. That's why it's exciting to me. It's a living art. You are in connection with human beings and the evolution of society," she said.