The abandoned buildings, seedy hotels and cramped apartments of the Parisian banlieues exist within an alleyway-sized metal cage at the EXIT Theater in San Francisco. The rooms have no walls or windows, but a group of nimble and fearless actors is constructing an elaborate environment from now to May 25 with the Cutting Ball Theatre’s “Communique No. 10.”
Translated by director Rob Melrose from a script by French playwright Samuel Gallet, “Communique No. 10” draws its inspiration from the North African youth-led 2005 riots in Paris. The riots began after two young men, 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, were accidentally electrocuted when hiding from police in an electricity substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Their deaths served as a catalyst for three weeks of riots across France — an explosive protest against the oppressive nature of the French police in their dealings with nonwhite youth.
“Communique No. 10” expands upon the issue of race and dives into an exploration of class and identity. The play interweaves the stories of seven underclass Parisians as they fight for survival and dignity, both figuratively and literally on the peripheries of the city. Damien Seperi plays Hassan, a first-generation Frenchman seeking revenge for his murdered brother in a state disinclined to provide justice for its immigrant population. Seperi roots his performance in an anguished gravity, disenchanted from the start with any promises of liberte, egalite or fraternite.
Hugo E. Carbajal is menacing as the Child, a taunting go-between whose youth suggests an innocence that does not seem to exist for the anarchic rebel. The Child delivers communiques over a simulated radio, breathing a sinister fog over the city’s establishment: “We don’t want to kill you. We want you to die of shame.”
As one of two females in the cast, Ponder Goddard is dynamic and dangerous as Anne, an alcoholic who appears to be crazy but may just have everything figured out. Gallet writes his best lines for Anne, who in a dreamy haze recounts, “So many people over there I make dead just by closing my eyes,” and “I have nothing against my past life except that its over.” “Communique No. 10” moves past the political and into the personal, challenging not only what a state owes its citizens, but what citizens owe themselves and each other.
Gallet’s script is raw and daring, but the play’s set distinguishes the production and turns it into an unexpectedly intimate affair. The audience sits on either side of a short, widened runway, separated from the action by a foot or two of distance. A metal structure — like an enlarged cage built with black bars sturdy enough to support a degree of theatrical aerobatics — becomes an underground tunnel, a graveyard, an industrial wasteland. Under the direction of choreographer Emma Crane Jaster, the actors mime an invisible setting into existence, filling up the empty space of the stage with the materiality of the banlieues.
Without any visual cues from the set and aside from the background provided in the program, Gallet makes little reference to Paris itself in the play. The lack of context gives the play a dystopian feel — with rebels organizing to reclaim a city controlled by an oppressive police force — that could ascribe its setting to any major metropolitan setting. Watching from the Tenderloin, the struggles of Hassan and crew are never very far removed from the reality outside the theater, where racism and gentrification play a role in shaping the urban experience, just as they did for Traore and Benna a world away in Clichy-sous-Bois.
“Communique No. 10” runs until May 25 at the Cutting Ball Theater in residence at EXIT in San Francisco.
Grace Lovio is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].