It’s three in the afternoon and the small theater at the Abidjan Arts Academy is rapidly filling with students. They have come to see Dame de Fer, or Iron Lady, written and played by the Franco-Ivorian performer, Tatiana Rojo.
Emerging from behind a large Louis XIV chair on the left of the stage, Rojo introduces us to the main character, Michelle, a market women from another, much poorer part of this city, Adjamé. Around her, Rojo creates a quasi-fictional universe of characters, including four complicated daughters and their lovers.
The performance gets a standing ovation. She has performed it more than 800 times, she said, but it wasn’t always this easy.
“I based the story on the life of my mother. But nobody was interested and we had nowhere to play until my stage director Eric Checco hit on the idea to put this Louis XIV chair on the stage,” said Rojo.
Rojo took the stage in Abidjan this month as part of the African Arts jamboree, MASA. So did Franco-Burkinabè performer, Roukiata Ouédraogo, whose show Ouagadougou pressé, or Ouagadougou in a hurry, also uses few props, just some suitcases.
Again, we travel ... from the household intrigues in the Ouagadougou neighborhood where she grew up to a gossip-saturated beauty salon in the Château Rouge area in Paris whose owner does not think twice about swindling one of her rare white clients out of a rather large sum of money.
Rojo and Ouedraogo draw on their own personal histories to produce dazzling one-woman shows. The two women are part of a larger renaissance of storytelling and stand-up comedy happening around West Africa.
Ouédraogo took her nickname, Petite Modèle, from her schooldays and early years in Paris as a make-up artist for fashion shows.
“Even though my parents were active in the theater in Ouagadougou, I wasn’t terribly interested. It was only when I had been working in fashion for a number of years that I wanted to try something new. I did an internship at a theater in Paris. My teachers there strongly encouraged me to carry on, which I did,” she said.
Her first production was based on Yennenga, a legendary princess from what is now Burkina Faso. Ouédraogo found it easy to relate.
“Yennega defies her father’s authority and creates her own destiny. It’s very much a story for today’s women, too,” she said.
"And then in my second show, Ouagadougou pressé, I wanted to talk about migration because I am one of those migrants; I live in Paris. But I wanted to take a humorous approach without becoming coarse. After all, migration often is a sad story: people leave their homes, find themselves not wanted or don’t even make it. I wanted to show the comeback, the joy when you see your relatives again. And around that idea I created all these little stories.”
Both shows, Dame de Fer and Ouagadougou pressé, are funny. “Excuse me. Hey, keep your hands off my African heritage!” Roukiata’s character exclaims as she wiggles her derriere into a crowded taxi during Ouagadougou pressé, but aside from the many jokes, there are some serious points being made.
Rojo says Dame de Fer is about an Africa that fights. “Michelle marries off her girls because she needs to pay the rent and the bulldozer is on its way to flatten her house,” she said. But her daughters marry rich, white men from France and Canada.
“So what?” says Rojo. “Africa sends its children abroad. People have always moved around the world and Africa is no different. And you know, one of the daughters wants to come back home because that is where the sun shines. And Michelle, old and majestic, replies: ‘No. The sun shines where you are. I’m sure the day will come when it will shine here too, but that’s not for now. You stay where you are.”
Ouédraogo is on a mission to change the theater world.
“I want decent roles for black actors. You know, it’s always a cleaning woman, or a nurse who works as an illegal migrant or a prostitute. I’ve had it with that. I refuse roles now, because I have my own productions,” she said.
If you are in New York, keep an eye out for the debut of the English version of Tatiana Rojo’s Iron Lady. And Roukiata Ouédraogo performs her newest production, Tombe la masque, or Drop the Mask, at the Boufon theater in Paris throughout April.