Military commanders know that advantages of controlling “the high ground,” which offers better visibility over a battlefield. But can the same be said of possessing the moral high ground?
This question is at the heart of the play “Black Code: The Adventures of the First Count of Monte Cristo,” which is being produced by the French language theater company Theatre du Reve through March 10 at the 7 Stages Backstage Theater.
The novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” is centered on the life of a man who is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes from jail, acquires a fortune and seeks revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment. What has become a classic of Western literature was written by Alexander Dumas and first published in 1848.
The play “Black Code” is not a retelling of this tale, but rather an account of the life of Alexander Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre, who was born in what today is Haiti, the son of the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved woman of African descent.
In his 43 years, he became a general in Revolutionary France, one of the highest-ranking men of African descent ever in a European army and the first person of color in the French military to become a general-in-chief.
Born into slavery because of the status of his mother as well as born into nobility because of the status of his father, he was educated in France and freed there because slavery was illegal in metropolitan France at the time.
Lauren Morris, the play’s director, describes the facts of his life in the program notes as being motivated “by his relentless pursuit of justice and freedom” adding that he maintained courage “through political shifts that take him from a free child of the islands, to slave, to Parisian nobility, to low-ranking soldier, to general, to prisoner of war.”
The general was imprisoned in the southern Italian kingdom of Naples upon returning from Napoleon‘s failed Egypt campaign, which he opposed thereby infuriating the future emperor. He was incarcerated for nearly two years while Napoleon ignored his entreaties to get him out. Finally released in 1801 he died five years later following his return home to his wife, Marie-Louise Elizabeth Labouret.
The author and historian Tom Reiss won the Pulitzer prize for biography in 1913 for his portrait of the general in “The Black Count, Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.” Although based on the biography, the play is no less a tour de force given the compactness of its execution and the confines of the backstage.
Its author is non-other than Carolyn Cook, the acclaimed and ubiquitous actress of Atlanta‘s theater scene, who also happens to have been in 1996 the founder of the Theatre du Reve, Atlanta’s professional French language theater company,
Aside from creating the play, Mrs. Cook takes on several roles including a French attorney from current times, to the general’s wife and even Napoleon himself. Her email responses to a Global Atlanta interview follow.
Global Atlanta: Is this the first play that you have ever written? If so what was your motivation. if not, what others have you written?
Carolyn Cook: This is my second play. The first was last year’s TdR production, “Il Etait Une Fois (Once Upon a Time)”. I never expected to write plays; I was motivated by a desire to create new work specifically for our company. It’s been quite an adventure!
Global Atlanta: While we know some of the background, may we still ask: Why did you choose Code Noir?
Carolyn Cook: I’ve been looking for great stories from the broader francophone world, and one of our board members suggested I read the book “The Black Count” by Tom Reiss, a relatively new biography of General Alex Dumas. I became fascinated by this man and the period in which he lived — a time of tremendous social and political change worldwide. From there, I dug into primary sources, particularly the memoirs of his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas and I was hooked. I really wanted to tell this story.
Global Atlanta: We think one of the play’s admirable accomplishments is that it provides a bridge between then and now. Right from the beginning you make this work as the modern defense lawyer in the prison setting. How did you come up with this imaginative beginning?
Carolyn Cook: the idea of having a contemporary character meet Alex Dumas came as I was figuring out how to visit important turning points in Dumas’ life without doing a docudrama. I realized that if we set the play during his time as a political prisoner, we could have another character interrogate or interview him, and tell his story in flashbacks. Later in the process, it hit me that the other character could be modern — a stand-in for us, the contemporary audience, discovering out our own hidden past. Next thing, I knew, we had two time-lines intersecting, which I find much more interesting than just a straightforward narrative.
Global Atlanta: What parallels do you see between the two — political “push back” and disillusionment with the politics of the day — racial issues and the challenges of being of a mixed race — Alex Dumas and the Black Panther — war and the abandonment of spouse and children. Is it true that the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Carolyn Cook: I don’t know if history repeats itself, but there are definitely patterns in society, and it doesn’t hurt to look at the past as we try to build a better future. I certainly see parallels between Dumas’ time and out own.
Global Atlanta: What exactly was the Code Noir? Do you see a similar circulatory with the abolishment of slavery and then Reconstruction and the putting in place of Jim Crow laws?
Carolyn Cook: France’s Code Noir, or Black Code, was a set of laws governing the treatment of slaves in the French colonies prior to the Revolution. It was supposed to prevent abuses, but it condoned some incredibly harsh behaviors like branding, maiming and killing enslaved people for perceived “crimes.” The French abolished slavery when it seemed expedient to do so in 1794, but slavery was reinstated under Napoleon and continued until 1848. Even after that, former slaves and their descendants were exploited. There is definitely a parallel to the American experience, where Emancipation didn’t just wipe the slate clean.
Global Atlanta: What makes Alex Dumas such a compelling figure?
Carolyn Cook: First of all, he’s genuinely heroic. He was a strong general during the French Revolution. But what I find even more compelling is his insistence on fairness and discipline in his troops — he wouldn’t allow them to pillage or steal in conquered territory, and he refused to be a spectator at executions. He was called “Mr. Humanity” during the Reign of Terror, and it wasn’t a compliment! Finally, his life spans a period of great idealism — the Revolution — followed by a much more restrictive, hierarchical phase in French history. I find a lot of food for thought in his story.
Global Atlanta: You play several roles in addition to being the defense attorney. How difficult was it to be the wife of Alex Dumas and then Napoleon himself?
Carolyn Cook: I love playing multiple roles! It’s fun to dive into each separate character for short scenes, and then come back to the central action. Of course, it’s a challenge, but the best kind of challenge for an actor.
Global Atlanta: Were there any stage props that you especially liked and if so why?
Carolyn Cook: I really enjoy the use of very simple props — a table and stools, fabric and paper — to create the locations in the play. For me, that’s the appeal of theater. We can simply suggest a world, and the audience joins us there through lights, sound and imagination. Our director, Lauren Morris, knew she wanted to use silks to suggest water, mountains and other locations. We discovered as we worked with the aerial silk that we could turn it into a swing, like the Fragonard painting, and of course we had to put that in the show! We made discoveries all through the process, trying different ideas to see what we could create with a minimal set. It was a truly collaborative process.
Global Atlanta: School children have seen the play. Why is this a good play for them to see and did they seem to enjoy it?
Carolyn Cook: We’ve had quite a few students see the show, and they always have great comments and questions afterward. We do talk-backs with all our student audiences. They love the theatricality and the subject matter, and of course teachers are able to use the play to launch conversations about history and literature as well as the French language.
Global Atlanta: What do you like abut Thandi DeShazor’s performance (who plays General Dumas). Have you ever performed together before?
Carolyn Cook: I worked with Thandi a year ago in “Angels in America” at Actor’s Express. I think he’s a brilliant actor, very present and natural and smart. He’s also just a lovely person. It’s a joy to share the stage with him!
Global Atlanta: Somehow you make the English and French work together. How much of a challenge was that?
Carolyn Cook: Surprisingly, it felt very natural to work on the play in both languages. Audiences seem to enjoy the combination, and of course we also have supertitles to make both languages accessible to everyone
Global Atlanta: Any chance of a sequel?
Carolyn Cook: Who knows? Right now I’m just thrilled to be sharing this production and this story with Atlanta audiences.
To purchase tickets for Code Noir, click here.