New York, NY —
A new play at Columbia University is the latest work from British theater director Peter Brook. The work explores the life and teaching of a West African Sufi master. WNYC’s Judith Kampfner has more on the play, which is in French with English supertitles.
SOUND OF PLAY: Ta verite, ma verite, la verite
Your truth, my truth, the truth –the philosophy of this play is that the truth belongs to no –one.
The West African Sufi mystic Tierno Bokar believed that religious faith is a personal journey and no one path is right. He was born in 1875 and died in 1939 and spent most of his life in a small village in Mali. Bokar converted many people to an open and tolerant form of Islam.
Seekers came from far and wide to ask Tierno Bokar questions and he would reply by telling parables, drawing on the Koran and traditional West African storytelling.
Actor Sotigui Koyate is a long time member of Peter Brook’s troupe and is originally from Mali.Tall and thin, he has a long face and doleful eyes. He moves slowly with grace and dignity and when he sits serenely on a straw mat on the bare stage–he’s bathed in golden light. The director Peter Brook hopes that the audience will be touched by the moments of stillness.
BROOK: Now Tierno Bokar, you experience a quality through him and it’s experienced by everyone together through silence. When you see a work of art like an icon or a Buddha, or a cathedral, something in you receives you experience a quality of silence, there is a moment when you are touched by that quality.
Bokar scholar Professor Louis Brenner says Brook has captured the contemplative essence of the sufi master.
BRENNER: The theater of Peter Brook is not so much an entertainment as an invitation to some kind of inner reflection.
Brook If coming to the theater one person goes away with their own wish to look beyond all the difficulties and understandable pressures and impossible stresses of material life. We’re more than rewarded. Our job is not to convert anybody but to give a little nourishment
And that nourishment may be the reward for working hard to stay with the story. The set is austere and the super titles hang high above the stage. Not to mention, that Bokar’s teachings are often enigmatic – it’s an hour and a half of sheer concentration.
BROOK: We only want people to come who get an impression that this is something that could interest them. We are not fighting to entertain them.
The audience has to grapple not only with religious concepts, but a history lesson on French colonial Africa.
As the play unfolds the French colonial authorities take action against Tierno Bokar and his followers. His young disciple describes the atrocities and it’s impossible not to make comparisons with Iraq
BROOK: One of the moments that in performances here have been so powerful, is when you hear the young African saying that he goes from post to post and at each one of them is a new general in charge and then they’re described - that there’s been torture and humiliation, pissing on one person handling them brutally, threatening them.
Despite the oppression, Bokar refuses to blame his enemies, in fact he embraces them. Professor Ousmane Kane from Columbiasays that shatters many prejudices against the Islamic faith:
KANE: What they can learn seeing this play is terror inspired by variants of Islamic fundamentalism is just one side of the Islamic story. Another side would be tolerant, open minded and even a mystical Islam who advocates believe there are so many paths to salvation.
By the end of the play, Bokar is under house arrest. He cannot go to the mosque, and lives out his last years impoverished and deserted by his followers who are frightened to be associated with him. Professor Brenner.
BRENNER: At the moment a Muslim dies, he should recite there is no god but god.. but if you can’t recite then you can take your index finger and place it over your hears. Very slowly Tierno makes this gesture and you have this hint that the breath has gone out of him as he lightly gives way and dies in a very moving moment for me.. the image was very strong.
BROOK: For ten minutes there usually a marvelous silence at the end of the performance and people live with something of their own.
KAMPFNER: I felt a bit ridiculous but I ventured to tell Brook my own thought in that quiet time –a fervent wish to find a wise teacher and sit on a mat with him under a tree.
BROOK: I think that is marvelous. And for you then is to see that’s an image. But that’s not truly the essence of what you mean. You’re turning it into a pretty picture. Now either you are satisfied with a pretty picture in which you’ll find a wise man and sit on a mat or you do something much more demanding on yourself which is to come back to what in me is really yearning.»