The Work of Authenticity: Making Haitian Peasants in Martinican Theatre1


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    Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, and the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. I would like to thank Joel Robbins, Richard Handler, my colleagues and students at the University of Adelaide, the members attending the second biennial conference of the Australian Association for Caribbean Studies, and the anonymous TAJA reviewers for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


This paper examines a Martinican theatrical troupe's development of a play about Haitian peasant life for an annual cultural festival. It examines why such a play was chosen for a festival which is dedicated to showcasing and celebrating Martinican culture. It also charts and analyses differences between the theatrical elite (playwright, director and experienced actors) and ‘debutants’ (new members of the company) over the significance of Haiti in Martinique and the representation of Haitian peasants in rehearsals leading up to the opening night. I argue that although the ‘quest for the authentic’ may be common to all theatre participants, the content and objectives of such a quest differ depending on an individual's theatrical experience and relationship to specific cultural ideologies. For those with a significant political and/or emotional investment in the cultural ideology of Negritude, Haiti's successful revolution against France in 1804 signifies a heroic past (of an independent black republic) that Martinique lacks. For those without such investments, Haiti is viewed more critically as a poverty stricken and illiterate society. For this latter group, authenticity, rather than being achieved through a narrative of displaced history (based upon an assumption of cultural identity), can be attained through the act of acting (based upon an assumption of individual identity).