Chocolat Blues

 

 

Rafael is feeling blue. He's fulminating against those who never have recognized the vital role that he played in the history of live performing arts in France. He tells us his life, which was a real adventure, relying on music and images.



Rafael was a Cuban slave who was sold to a Portuguese seller and arrived in France when he was 10 years old. His only education is the gestures he was taught when he was a child, when he watched the Black slaves dancing in the port of Havana. These gestures still exist in hip-hop basic moves. They are the memory of the Africans who where deported to America. They also refer to the “Cimaron” 's flight, the fugitive slave who runs away from the plantations to discover freedom.



His owner put him in a farm, near Bilbao, as a domestic. Rafael was no longer a slave, but he was not a free man. He therefore ran away again. He was 14. He wandered in the streets of Bilbao, like a lost child. Wanderer, groom, iron miner... One day, when he was dancing in a bar, he was noticed by Tony Grice, a famous English clown, who brought him to Paris.



Back in 1886, most of the French people had never seen Black people. Rafael was laughed at. He was nicknamed “Chocolat” because of the color of his skin. He kept his cool and changed his “disadvantage” into an advantage. As he could make people laugh, he could become a clown. And it worked ! When he danced, French people compared him to a monkey, but they were fascinated at the same time. They had never seen anyone dancing like him. In 1888, Raphael encountered a great success in “Le Nouveau Cirque” with “Noce de Chocolat”. This is when he became famous. He was a clown, a dancer, a singer and the king of Parisian nights. Toulouse Lautrec drew his portrait. He was filmed by the Lumiere brothers. His character inspired writers, publicists, toys and puppets manufacturers.

But fashion quickly changed, especially in Paris. From the beginning of the 20th century, a news generation of Black singers arrived on the music-hall stage. They were very successful with the “cake-walk”, a dance that were invented by the slaves in the USA southern plantations one century earlier. They are the same basic moves as the ones that Rafael had introduced 15 years earlier. But people did not like blackface clowns anymore. Rafael fell into oblivion and died in 1917. He was buried in “la carré des indigents” - a cemetery for the “anonymous”- , in Bordeaux.



Rafael is feeling blue.

The role of pioneers is really thankless. They have to face the despise and the misunderstanding of the audience, because they disrupt the ways of seeing and doing things. But when their innovations are accepted, the audience forgets those who introduced them. Rafael gets some comfort by watching young people dancing hip hop on the squares of the suburbs : without knowing it, they commemorate his fabulous destiny.



Here, we pay tribute to the first Black artist to play on French stages, by associating an artist and Gérard Noiriel. Through his story, we aim to remind the early role that the Afro-American slave culture played in the living performing arts in France. More broadly, we seek to introduce, through a new point of view, the issues of discrimination, integration and emancipation in French society nowadays.

Inspired by Chocolat clown nègre(Bayard Presse, 2012), Gérard Noiriel's book, , this solo combines comedy, dance and videos. It resorts to forms that are adapted to the expectations of an audience coming from popular areas, in order to convey knowledge though collective thoughts. It can be played in theaters, as well as in cultural places : multimedia libraries, village halls, social centers, schools...