“Minette’s Worlds: Theatre & Revolution in Saint-Domingue,” Lecture w/ UVA Prof. Laurent Dubois

There is an inherent difficulty in writing the history of the Haitian Revolution: How do you channel the thought and visions of the enslaved people who imagined and enacted the Revolution when they left very few documents behind? Put more optimistically, alternate pathways for accessing the intellectual and political worlds of the era must be identified, and as University of Virginia John L. Nau III Bicentennial Professor of the History & Principles of Democracy Laurent Dubois laid out in his October 28 lecture at Swallow Hall, the theatre provides an interesting and valuable point of entry into this task. A confluence of factors, he explained, make this so. The theatre was, for one, pervasive in Saint-Domingue in the mid- to-late 18th century; every port of significance had a playhouse whose twice-per-week shows drew the full scope of the imperial apparatus. Especially for the non-literate people in the colony—perhaps most notably those domestics who often attended the theatre with planters—it was the origin point for political ideas and themes, which circulated from the theatre back to the plantation, where lines were quoted and full stage performances recreated. And it was a space of social and political struggle, where free Blacks in Saint-Domingue asserted their presence through attendance.

The music of enslaved people—so ubiquitous in Saint-Domingue—was also a touchstone of this intersection between revolution and the theatrical venues where African culture and colonial institutions were brought to life (and brought into conflict with one another) on the stage each night, and as Prof. Dubois showed, this connection between art and politics comes into sharp focus when we look to specific examples.

“Our state’s avenger”: In Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, performed regularly in Saint-Domingue, Montezuma leads an uprising against the Spanish, with the pledge to take vengeance for America. Not only was the Incan revolt against the Spanish, as well as the particular figure of Montezuma, frequently invoked by the army of enslaved and free Blacks who fought the French in the Haitian Revolution and who similarly saw themselves as an indigenous people trying to recover their sovereignty from European robbers. The play’s central theme of avenging America was likewise embraced by Dessalines, the first emperor of the free, post-revolutionary Haitian republic and a devotee of the theatre, who, in fact, renamed the insurgents the Armée indigène.

“Ah, Zaire, you are crying”: This line from Voltaire’s Zaire appeared in a manumission document-slash-plea published in a Saint-Domingue newspaper, which asserted both (a) that an enslaved woman by the same name needed to be freed from bondage on the basis of her virtue and sorrow; and (b) that she would be a citizen if given the right and should be given it (it was specifically in the making of this latter point that the play was quoted). That such a grappling with race, sexuality, gender, and citizenship drew on the lexicon of the theatre to reach a broader audience should come as no surprise. Nor should the letter’s protagonist, as enslaved people were frequently named after plays in Saint-Domingue.

Minette’s Worlds: In a tale unearthed by Jean Fouchard in 1955 and given new life in Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel, Dance on the Volcano, Minette rose to prominence in Saint-Domingue during theatre’s peak in the 1780s, when performance was almost entirely closed to people, like Minette, of African descent. In an act of resistance, she broke the color line and became a star of the 18th-century stage, whose roles we can track through newspaper accolades. At the same time, and as Vieux-Chauvet does in her novel, the story of Minette must also be reimagined and newly understood by working through the questions that it raises related to her intense struggles as a woman of African descent in these spaces of whiteness and colonial power. Who, for example, was she performing for? How can we frame her place in the theatre not as a refusal or rejection of local culture but as something else? And finally, as Prof. Dubois noted in closing, another important line of inquiry must be pursued as the narrative of Minette’s life becomes clearer. She did not, as Fouchard supposed, die during the Revolution. Instead, like many refugees from Saint-Domingue did in the early 19th century, she made her way first to Cuba and then to New Orleans, where she died in 1807. We know now that she performed throughout her time outside of Saint-Domingue, perhaps even as far north as Baltimore and Philadelphia, and we know that a benefit performance was held in her name as she grew more ill, all of which invites us to consider the depth to which she, and others like her, functioned as vital cogs in trans-Atlantic cultural exchange.

The lecture was co-sponsored by Missouri Humanities, the MU Afro-Romance Institute, and Mizzou’s School of Languages, Literature, and Culture