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France-Luce Benson

Playwrights’ Corner
Headshot of France-Luce Benson
How did Deux Femmes On the Edge De La Revolution come to you? And what shape did it take as you began the research and writing process? 

I've been wanting to write a play about the Haitian Revolution for many years, but was intimidated by the epic scale of the story, and a responsibility to do it justice. I never felt quite ready. Then, as a Dramatist Guild Fellow in 2015-16, I started to play around with some ideas and found myself feeling a profound calling to tell that story now. As a fellow, I had so much creative support that it seemed like a great opportunity to begin a draft. I was later awarded a month long residency at Djerassi, where I'd have the time, space, and resources to immerse myself in the process.

One of the challenges I faced as I began the process, was figuring out how to incorporate strong and complex roles for women. I had been exposed to a couple of pieces about the Haitian Revolution, and they all, understandably, focused on Toussaint L'OuvertureDessalinesDutty Boukman, and a score of other men who are celebrated as the heroes of the Revolution. Also, most of the plays I've seen and read about similar historical events were all dominated by male characters. However, I am committed to writing plays with female protagonists, and I wasn't willing to compromise that. I also didn't want the play to be a dry, dull, historical drama. I was leaning toward historical fiction, and thought I would create a story with the Revolution as the backdrop.

I already knew the African spiritual traditions that many of the enslaved people of San Domingue maintained played an essential role in the war. My research not only confirmed that, but deepened my understanding of how those traditions factored in. The Haitian Revolution, like most wars, was brutally violent. Furthermore, Haitian culture, then and now, is incredibly sensual. All of the above factors prompted me to write a play that is highly theatrical, surreal, and even super natural. 

But the most wonderful discovery was learning about two women who are among the many unsung heroes of the Haitian Revolution. Cécile Fatiman was a Mambo who facilitated the ceremony at Bois Caïman, led by Dutty Boukman, that marked the beginning of the Revolution. Sanite Belair, one of only two women to be featured on Haitian currency, was a decorated soldier of the revolution. The character of Cécile in my play began as a composite of these two women. I was also fascinated by the socio-class structure of San 
Domingue before the war. One aspect I found interesting with regard to the intersection of the French Revolution and how it informed San Domingue's 
population, is there were many French women sold into marriage as a means of protecting their families' wealth. The character of Valentine in my play was inspired by this. I realized that while the enslaved people were fighting for their freedom, there was an underlying struggle for the women of San Domingue to assert their own Independence. The parallels between their struggles, and the struggles women still face all over the world today, compelled me to explore that. Finally, I had my female characters, and I felt that I could tell the story of the revolution with integrity, while honoring my commitment to create stories with women at their core.

What are your goals for the week as you enter the rehearsal and development process for The New Black Fest at The Lark?

Deux Femmes has been described by many as "ambitious", and I have to say I agree with that. The play is highly theatrical, and it demands a lot of the cast. So it will be useful for me get a sense of how it works up on its feet. I've also been working on finding the right balance between the fictional narrative and the history. The titular characters' stories are what the drive the action of the play, yet the historical events of the revolution inform their journeys. It's important to me that audiences gain new insights about the revolution and Haiti's legacy. My hope is that Awoye and the cast's work will help me to write a new draft that is balanced and impactful. I'm also curious about whether all the characters' arches are satisfied. I always find that actors are incredibly helpful in this regard, and I encourage them to share their insights.

I'd also like to experiment with movement, sound, and music. Again, because the theatricality of the play is heightened, it will be important for me to get clear about how much of it is essential in moving the action forward, or if it might be more powerful to pull back a little.

Finally, I am writing this play in two parts. We'll be working on Part One during The New Black Fest at The Lark. So my ultimate goal is to not only have a draft of Part One that feels ready for production, but to begin working on Part Two.

It is my hope that we continue supporting “ambitious” theatrical works. Especially black work that explore specific moments in history. Why do we need Deux Femmes now? 

The sociopolitical events over the last couple of years inspired me to think about what a Revolution actually means. This last year in particular feels like America is on the brink - or perhaps in the midst - of a revolution. Whether it be police brutality against people of color, mass shootings, immigration reform, or the incomprehensible actions of our current administration, people are fed up and more politically engaged then ever. This, for me, answers the question of why now, why today. I believe that we are at a moment where this story resonates with people from all backgrounds.

Movements like "Me Too" and "Times Up " have reminded women of the power we have, and has created a rich dialogue about consent, abuse of power, and how we (women) negotiate our relationships in society. I feel that Deux Femmes speaks to all of that.

What does "Black Space, Black Love and Solidarity" mean to you personally and in what ways does your work live or move about these spaces? 

We (the Afro Diaspora) have a lot to be enraged about and we continue to fight oppressive systems daily. But at the end of the day we are humans with a great capacity for love. I feel that is rarely depicted in an honest way. I am consistently looking at our political and socioeconomic struggles through the lens of our interpersonal relationships. In Deux Femmes,  it was important for me to create complex, fully dimensional characters. Even while moving through the space of a political revolution, the characters are driven and sometimes conflicted by their love for one another. My artistic mission to write plays about Haiti speak to my perception of the Afro Diaspora. Black people in America, the  Carribean,  Latin America, Africa, etc. We are all connected and I hope that we become more unified. I think that telling stories from a global perspective that offers an expansive view of our history will help accomplish that.

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