Parliamentary and theatrical agendas aligned last week in Paris. The night after French lawmakers voted to return 26 looted artefacts to Benin and Senegal, a new musical production, Le Vol du Boli, took a stolen African fetish, the boli, as inspiration to explore centuries of African history and colonisation.
Le Vol du Boli, the brainchild of British musician Damon Albarn and Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako (of Timbuktu fame), was supposed to open five days earlier. But since pandemic-related restrictions have forced the Théâtre du Châtelet to reduce its seating capacity by half, each performance loses more money than it brings in — so instead of a two-week run, the cast of nearly 40 made only three appearances.
Still, by the standards of 2020, getting to the stage at all is cause for celebration, and there was plenty to relish in this ambitious staging. It loosely follows a central figure (Thierno Thoune) who loses the boli early on as the 13th-century Malian king Sundiata Keita. Bolis can take on different shapes but in the play, the boli is a four-legged animal fetish with a hump.
Thoune goes on to play a slave, a soldier fighting for France during the second world war, a miner and — in a full-circle moment — a museum attendant watching over the stolen artefact.
Given its historical breadth, Le Vol du Boli appears as a series of musical tableaux rather than a coherent narrative. Albarn’s score, performed onstage by Malian, Congolese and Burkinabé musicians, is often breathtaking, full of mood shifts and sparkling percussion. Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara watches over some scenes and provides lush vocals; the contrast between two small choruses — one of black women, the other featuring white men representing the colonisers — is nicely judged.
The choreography doesn’t always rise to the same level, and Le Vol du Boli requires the audience to overlook some haphazard transitions. The boli is conspicuously absent from much of the story: the 20th-century segments, especially, lean towards generic history lessons.
Still, the dearth of major productions about the African continent means the creative team’s desire to pack in as much information as possible is wholly understandable. Le Vol du Boli also feels like a small vindication for Ruth Mackenzie, the British director who was fired by the Châtelet last month after a short tenure. The inclusive, international outlook of the show is exactly what she had vowed to bring to Paris, and she was in attendance to witness the ovation on opening night.
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