She's Lifting the Curtain on France's Dark Colonial Past ... on Stage

She's Lifting the Curtain on France's Dark Colonial Past ... on Stage

Caroline Guiela Nguyen

SourcePablo Chignard

Why you should care

Because Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s groundbreaking plays will make you weep … if you speak French.

Even the title is a remnant of history. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, but the play Saigon holds on to the city’s original name much as its characters hold on to their old home. Told in French and Vietnamese, the play’s action bounces between 1956 — when the French defeat in Vietnam saw a wave of immigration to Europe — and 1996, when Vietnamese-born people who’d made their lives in France were allowed to visit their homeland again. Its characters speak frankly about exile, loneliness and dépaysement, a French word describing the disorientation one feels away from home.

Saigon, which has been an immense success on French stages and around the world since it debuted in the summer of 2017, attracts audiences not through polemics but by putting the feelings and emotions of people often dismissed at the forefront. It’s both hyperrealistic and dreamlike in a way that many reviewers have likened to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. But while it may be an unusual piece for the French stage, it’s not unusual for director Caroline Guiela Nguyen.

“I feel a great urgency to tell stories that aren’t being told onstage,” explains Nguyen, 37, who works with both professional and amateur actors in her quest for realism. She wrote Saigon based on testimonials from people in Vietnam and in Paris’ 13th arrondissement, an area traditionally occupied by various diaspora communities, including the Viet Kieu, or “outside Vietnamese.”

She’s one of the most talented directors of her generation.

Anne-Mathilde Di Tomaso, director of production, the Avignon Festival

Though her mother emigrated from Vietnam in 1956 (her Algerian-born father is of French descent), Saigon isn’t a family story for Nguyen. The play’s characters don’t mirror her own relatives, she says, and the story doesn’t resonate any more or less personally with her than any other play she’s undertaken, “because from the beginning I’ve only worked on stories that speak to me.”

Before becoming a director, Nguyen studied sociology. In fact, her introduction to the world of theater was through her study of the way cultures outside of France approach performance, something she sees as a significant driver to her unusual way of creating art. She studied directing and dived into the theatrical world. But something was missing. “When I left school I first worked on the classics: Macbeth, Andromache. And I very quickly saw that that was not my space. I didn’t hear my own life in those texts,” she says.

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Actors perform during the rehearsal of the play Saigon, directed by French director Caroline Guiela Nguyen in Avignon.

Source ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty

With a group of like-minded artists Nguyen formed Les Hommes Approximatifs (The Approximate Men) in 2008. It was decidedly removed from the mainstream of French theater: It wasn’t based in Paris but in the southeastern city of Valence, and it followed an unconventional process. Its members wanted to create plays about populations ignored on stages, work with a combination of professional and amateur actors, and commit to realism, to the point of creating a detailed backstory for every single character. Set designer Alice Duchange, who’s been a member of the company since it launched and went to theater school with Nguyen, explains that while all the artists work together to find the heart of each piece, “it’s Caroline who conducts the orchestra.”

Part of Saigon’s power is its handling of France’s legacy of colonialism — and its insistence on putting Franco-Vietnamese stories front and center. That’s important, Duchange explains, because “it’s putting a different story out in the open.” But Saigon may also have just come along at the right time: Those conversations may already be front and center, after the refugee crisis of recent years. “It’s true that stories about exile, about displaced populations, all that is what we’re talking about today,” Duchange says. Younger generations are beginning to talk about France’s dark history more openly. “Maybe it’s easier now it’s a little bit further away,” Duchange says, “but also because we’re talking about it all together.”

Before Saigon, the company had other hits — notably Elle Brûle, part of a trilogy of plays reimagining Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But they were hits in France; Saigon has toured across Europe and through Asia with its story of immigration and exile. That, Nguyen says, opens new doors for the company — and allows them to find new facets in Saigon itself. “In Holland, for example, the question of colonialism and identity resonated more,” she says, “but in China it was the question of exile.” Nguyen, whose partner is the artistic director of a different independent theater company, won’t discuss her upcoming projects, though she does let slip that she’s working on both a play (set to debut in 2021) and a cinematic project. This week, she was named the winner of the 15,000-euro Jürgen Bansemer and Ute Nyssen Playwrights Prize for Saigon.

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Anh Tran Nghia (left) and Thi Thanh Thu Tô perform during a rehearsal of the play Saigon in Avignon.

Source ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty

It may be difficult for Saigon and the rest of Nguyen’s work to break the language barrier with non-Francophone countries. While it’s been successful across Europe with supertitles (a screen atop the stage with translated text), it has yet to tour the U.S. or U.K. — and notoriously monolingual English speakers may have trouble connecting. Then again, in Saigon’s case, a complex colonial history is something those countries share with France.

“I think she’s one of the most talented directors of her generation,” says Anne-Mathilde Di Tomaso, director of the production at the Avignon Festival, one of the most prestigious theater festivals in the world. When Saigon played there in 2017, Di Tomaso says, it was one of the most successful plays that year. “In French theater there is still a bit of holding back. And Caroline’s work … they’re not tear-jerkers. The stories she’s telling are emotional, but they are true.”

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