The Sufi teacher and a sage of theater

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©Herald Tribune nov. 2004 – By Mary Blume

Tierno Bokar (1885-1940) was a Sufi teacher, a member of the Tidjan brotherhood in Mali and a man of wisdom and gentleness who might not have crossed even Peter Brook’s spacious mind had Brook not met one of Bokar’s disciples, Amadou Ampâté Bâ, soon after setting up his international theater research center in Paris more than 30 years ago.
Hampâté Bâ, an official at Unesco, had written a memoir of Bokar and Brook, intrigued, discussed making a play about him. By the time, years later, he did « The Tempest » with the Mali-born Sotigui Kouyaté as Prospero, he was talking with Kouyaké about a Bokar play. Last week, « Tierno Bokar » finally opened in French at Brook’s Bouffes du Nord theater here, adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne with Kouyaté as the sage. It is not a play, Brook says, but theater research, and his program credit is as researcher and not director.
« Theater research is just to say that one is trying to explore, to push the boundaries out so that one can no longer be sustained by known construction, » he said in his office at the Bouffes. Making a play from a memoir, Brook had to use his own experience of storytelling forms to get across what is basically just text, finding « what is acceptable, what has life and variety, getting down to earth without getting too far down nor floating so high that it is rarefied and abstract. »
At no time has Brook’s view of the theater as a changing process in which the audience plays its part been more evident than in the versions of « Tierno Bokar », which toured widely, with many changes, from the Ruhr in Germany to Brazil before opening in Paris.
« A Protestant Calvinist German audience and the ardent Indian Catholic Latin audience who had at the same time immediate experience of colonialism and deep religion fervor – all that made it clear that there were some things to be developed, some things not to be said, » Brook remarked. « I think that’s where the real research lies – what is legitimate and illegitimate in in the form or theater. »
« Tierno Bokar » begins in a peaceful oasis where the young teacher is preaching a lesson of tolerance and generosity with profundity and humor – « too serious is not serious » – until caught up in a schism about whether a certain prayer should be said 11 times ou 12. By 1917 the schism, more complicated than it sounds, had alarmed the French colonial authorities, who feared an uprising. The leader of the 12-prayer faction was eventually exiled by the Vichy government to Montluçon in France, where he died in 1943. Tierno, who changed his allegiance to the 12s while not denying the truth of those who clung to 11, fell afoul not only of the French but of his own brotherhood. He died betrayed and alone, a man of God who believed that « faith is one, no matter in what religion it is expressed. »
Islam, colonialism, fanaticism – are there intended references to today ? « Nothing is easier and more to be avoided today than to do plays to underline for the audience – here I’m doing Hamlet but I am putting Claudius in a gray suit with a cellphone – that is to easy , » Brook said. « But when you have something as strong as this, contemporary references are unavoidable ».
It is a play about faith, although Brook says he has always avoided like the plague anything, overtly religious or spiritual – even if they came into such productions as « The conference of the Birds », and « The Mahabharata ».
« One must always go along with what one fells is the need of the moment, », he continued. « The need to smash barriers, to break taboos, to shock, had its moment in the comfortable days of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This was an absolute necessity, you had to be able to say f*** onstage because nobody then dared to say f*** onstage. « I think that today almost everything that is a mirror of the horror of the world is in the theater useless self-evidence. There is no shock value after shock . » On the other hand there is the more interesting notion that Brook has been mulling over for some time, about the positive side of the negative, the idea that truth is many : « Tierno talks about different truths, those that are divergent and those that are convergent, and that notion that truth can converge goes very far and thank God has not become a cliché. » This has led Brook to go a step beyond his nine-hour long version of the Mahabharata and to present « Tierno Bokar » not only in repertory, but in Sunday marathons with two greatly contrasted pieces. « Le Grand Inquisiteur », based on Dostoyevsky, goes on at 2 :30 p.m, followed by « Tierno » at 4.30, followed by « La Mort de Krishna » at 7.30. The three form a triptych, brooks says. « When Tierno asks what is God and answers that God is an embarrassment to human intelligence, it’s an astounding line and it makes a direct link with the Grand Inquisitor, a terribly intelligent man who believes with all his intelligence in the rightness of the Inquisition, » he said. « Everything he says is to provoke the Christ figure and Christ looks him straight in the eye whith his tender gaze and doesn’t react. And after all this Christ gets up and kisses him and he is forced to let him go. The silence of Christ expresses the essence of what cannot be explained and Krishna, through another form, comes in here. »
While the other two plays illustrate how easily power comes into play when there is a religious interest of a high quality, Brook says that the Hindu tale comes from the same recognition and respect of what cannot be explained. There is, Brook says, an emotional continuity in the three.
After Paris, « Tierno Bokar » will hit the road from late January to July, calling in at theaters from Naples to New York. During the tour, Brook will celebrate his 80th birthday as quietly as possible, which will not be very since Michael Kustow’s massive new biography will come out ate the same time.
There is a lot to be said about Brook as the internationally acknowledged great man of the theater of our times, and a great deal has been said. Brook himself has a simplicity of manner (he still blushes), which does not conceal incessant curiosity, and it seems clear from recent productions as different as « Don Giovanni » and « Hamlet » that he is reflecting on what is arguably the greatest word in the English language : reconciliation. »
He continued : « The mere fact that you can in the theater show two opposing points of view and tthe audience, just by watching these two, is in a way sympathizing and following them does reconcile. The act of playing something out, a great conflict, is reconciled by the event itself. »
There is nothing Brook dislikes more than being called a guru, although he often is. His theater is a quest and not a single truth. « One cannot tell what the truth, is but a moment of truth in the theater is when everyone at that moment is touched in the same way, and then it’s gone. But for that moment that expresses itself in that sudden increase in attentiveness, something has been touched. « I think quite simply that nobody can define truth. But when truth is there one can recognize it, » he says.

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