Théâtre du Rêve, Atlanta’s French speaking theatre, is presenting a fascinating look at Alexandre Dumas, the trifecta (we’ll explain) called “Code Noir: Les Aventures du Premier Comte de Monte Cristo” (English translation: “Black Code: The Adventures of the First Count of Monte Cristo”) written by Carolyn Cook and directed by Lauren Morris, running through March 10 at 7 Stages Backstage Theatre.
Let me quickly state that if you aren’t fluent in French to fret not, because Power Point super titles are flashed on the wall in English; and in French when English is spoken. So no one need feel lost or left out.
On the contrary, one quickly warms to the story, which is fresh and surprising. A little background: Ms. Cook, the theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, recently read Tom Reiss’ 2012 Pulitzer-winning biography called “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.” It is the true story of Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the son of a renegade French nobleman and a black Haitian slave. The book offers insight into slavery and the life of a mixed-race man during the French Colonial Empire.
Alex Dumas (as he liked to be called) was the father of the author Alexandre Dumas, who wrote novels like “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers. And General Alex Dumas was the grandfather of playwright Alexandre Dumas (hence, the trifecta), who wrote “La Dame aux Camélias,” better known as “Camille” (remember the divine Garbo’s movie?).
If all this sounds terribly scholarly, you may relax; for what Théâtre du Rêve is presenting is essentially a story between two people: Alex Dumas (Thandiwe DeShazor) and a French lawyer named Sandrine Achard (Carolyn Cook). In a magical theatrical twist, she is placed in 2019 and speaks French, and he is placed in 1799 and speaks English (mainly). So it’s an intersectional space that highlights the two worlds they’re coming from.
Alex has been imprisoned in Italy fleeing from Egypt to France, and Sandrine is his attorney trying to help win his freedom. So we are left with a highly educated black man with an aristocratic upbringing, fighting for “liberty, equality, fraternity” – the cry of the French revolution — and his colloquies with a sophisticated, white, female Parisian attorney and their growing understanding and admiration for each other.
So is Alex an aristocrat or a slave? The “Black Code” was theoretically supposed to protect slaves in French colonies from harsh punishments, but it wasn’t always successful. Interestingly, France did not allow slavery in the mother country; perhaps they thought it not civilized enough for La France itself. The play inadvertently explores many avenues, perhaps too many for 75 minutes, but it’s all strangely compelling.
Ms. Cook’s Sandrine is smooth as glass; and she plays other characters as well; at one point she’s Napoleon. Never accuse this actor/playwright of timidity. And Mr. DeShazor is likewise winning and skillful. Together they are magnetic.
A simple set with steps, ladders, and flowing pieces of cloth (scenic designer R. Paul Thomason) can work wonders. There is no other theatre in town with the savoir-faire to pull off this kind of esoteric enlightenment. Abandon your television and cell phone and check them out.
Tickets and more information at 7Stages.org.