A Tempest by Aimé Césaire is, simply, an anticolonialist text. Colonialism defines Césaire’s cultural foundations, and A Tempest puts those fundamental structures under fire. The impact made on French culture by years of slavery and forcefully imposed colonialism is starkly displayed. Of course, in contemporary America race is one of the most sensitive topics; to put on a production of A Tempest is to look hard at how racial identity is constructed. The Tempest this play is not: In the original Shakespearean play, Caliban’s race (and to a degree, his species) is left a mystery. No such mystery exists in Césaire’s adaptation, and Caliban and Prospero’s relationship becomes a model of the Colonial white master/black slave dynamic. This dynamic defines all of A Tempest’s diversions from Shakespeare’s text. Stuck in the middle of this hierarchy is Ariel, who Césaire writes as Mulatto. Ariel’s mixed-race heritage places him in between the White Prospero and Black Caliban. In this uneasy “no-man’s-land”, Ariel is neither fully accepted nor fully rejected by his counterparts. By displaying the racial hierarchy so clearly, Césaire provides a canvas for you to explore issues not only of racism but of colorism, inter-black relations (the parallels between Caliban and Malcolm X on one hand and Ariel and Martin Luther King Jr. on the other must be noted), and the truth or fiction of a Pan-African black experience.
Identity is key in A Tempest, an idea that stems from Césaire’s concept of Négritude. Caliban, as a Caribbean islander, reclaims his connections to ancestral Africa. Given the specific nature of Césaire’s topic–French Colonialism’s effects on the West Indies–you must be prepared to respect that specific original purpose while also recognizing that the master/slave relationship displayed is relevant for any existing racial hierarchies. In light of the role race has played recently in national politics, our racial identities as Americans are certainly currently relevant. The dependence between Prospero and Caliban defines both their identities. Both Prospero and Caliban are reliant on one another for survival: Prospero needs Caliban for labor, and Caliban needs Prospero because of Prospero’s irreversible intrusions into Caliban’s cultural psyche. Caliban is alienated from his own home; we must ask, are black people made to feel comfortable in America?
Ultimately, Césaire’s portrayal of Colonialism’s racial inequality must say something about freedom from this hierarchy–and sure enough, a cry for freedom springs from Caliban’s mouth. But in the Colonial context, where Prospero and Caliban are completely inseparable, such freedom rings hollow; scholar Martin Munro argues that A Tempest’s final cry for freedom shows that “freedom is itself a myth, an illusion when set against the inescapable, omnipotent powers of neo-colonialism” (37). Does A Tempest fail to destroy the structures it reveals? Ultimately, there is hope. Césaire “affirms the validity of the myth of hope, the validity of the search for freedom and justice no matter how impossible they may seem. Essentially, then, when Césaire talks of hope, he is not suggesting a superficial, delusory, optimistic view of future harmony, but asserting the fundamental ineradicable nature of hope as a concept, an experiential and existential constant” (38). A Tempest examines freedom in a stark light, giving us a sense of both its impossibility and its necessity.
In Césaire’s prologue, a Master of Ceremonies hands out racially-colored masks. The device serves as an obvious pointer toward the constructed nature of race in A Tempest’s (and our) society. The actors wearing those masks, however (if you choose to respect Césaire’s wishes for an all black cast), are black. The implications of a black actor in a white mask are perplexing and potentially complicating for a straight-forward understanding of racial domination. The choice of whether to use masks or not is therefore a deeply important choice. The masks ultimately point toward the foundational elements A Tempest is dealing with, and the use/non-use of the masks can emphasize or downplay the importance of skin color in the presented structure of oppression.
You, the director, may hope to create a production of A Tempest that displays the brutal realities of Colonialism. But you must ask yourself: who cares about Colonialism other than progressive students and members of some elite leftist intelligentsia? At its worst, A Tempest could be exactly that, incomprehensible to all but Post-Colonial scholars. At its best, though, A Tempest could be a Surrealist poetry that communicates all the paradoxes and difficulties of Post-Colonial thought to an attentive audience. The audience that leaves A Tempest is thinking not only of race but of fundamental concepts: identity, freedom, language. A Tempest can deliver to the audience member a “this is water” moment, and the choices you make will determine the clarity of that parting thought.
Gabe Bertoluzzi, Victoria Green, and Adam Levonian