Sapphire’s celebrated novel is brought to radical life on stage
When the controversial novel “Push,” by bisexual author and performance poet Sapphire, first appeared in bookstores in 1996, readers were plunged into the complex pages of a classic bildungsroman in which the not-so-classic protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones, conveyed her experiences coming of age in 1980s Harlem as an illiterate, obese, HIV-positive, pregnant teenage victim of rape and incest with graphic and often heartbreaking candor.
Inspired by masterpieces such as “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker and “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, Sapphire dared to tell the story of this supremely victimized young woman using unabashedly explicit language that vividly recounted the injustices she endured and her grueling struggle to overcome them.
Now, French director and actor Alexia Monduit and musician and composer Thomas Rannou offer their own radical vision of Sapphire’s celebrated novel with “Push: An Amplified Reading,” which will run at Performance Space 122 from November 3-13 as part of the Act French Festival.
Performed previously at Lille 2004 Capitale europeenne de la culture, the Festival MIA in Annecy, and the Festival 100 Dessus Dessous in La Villette, this will be the first time that Monduit and Rannou will feature taped recordings of Sapphire reading her own text in English—in lieu of running English subtitles—as part of the multi-layered and exceptional sound environment of the show. Performance Space 122’s studio setting will allow Monduit to move freely throughout the audience as she reenacts Precious Jones’ words, accompanied by “beats, samples and ‘found’ [i.e. real, rather than technically constructed] sounds [that] ricochet in and out of rhythm.” An “amplified reading” has been described by those affiliated with the performance as “a song in the act of being written,” a concept which recalls Sapphire’s intrepid use of slang, and her manipulation of language in general, to essentially create an identity for Precious Jones over the course of “Push.”
“There is a way of pronouncing the words that makes it seem like [Monduit] is inventing them as she speaks, like she’s getting [them] out of her womb,” commented Denise Luccioni, Artistic Liaison for Act French. “It’s a strongly poetic performance, almost like someone is vomiting the words—there’s something very gutsy and visceral [about it],” she continued.
According to Luccioni, as members of the French “counter-culture,” Monduit and Rannou were especially drawn to the story of Precious Jones, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that most French citizens have little relationship to the experience of being a black teenager in Harlem.
“They picked excerpts from the book to redefine their own vision of the character,” said Luccioni.
Through a combination of Monduit’s performance of these carefully-chosen excerpts and Rannou’s construction of what Luccioni described as a “very refined and sophisticated sound and visual environment,” Sapphire’s distinctly New York story expands to include new cultures, and hence, new meanings and possibilities.
Monduit and Rannou worked closely with Jean-Pierre Carasso, the French translator of “Push,” as well as Sapphire herself, in preparation for the upcoming performance. Carasso’s translation employs a unique French dialect in an attempt to mimic the evolution of Precious Jones’ voice from a crude and unrefined slang to a more literate and self-aware prose over the course of the novel.
The Act French Festival brings the work of many of France’s most esteemed theater artists to venues throughout New York through December 15 as part of an effort to “offer a bridge-building vision of contemporary French culture and spark dialogue among the two countries’ leading theater artists, patrons, and professionals.”
For more information on the festival, visit actfrench.org.