Each year the San Francisco Fringe Festival celebrates a panoply of firsts: an unknown performer's first time before a paying audience, or a first play from a hitherto marginalized sexual identity. But 2011 introduces a whole new category of firsts: the first time the Fringe overcame censorship by the government of Mauritius.
Trup Sapsiway, a theater group from Mauritius, was supposed to perform its The Madogs of Diego, about the history of the Chagos Islands, at last year's Fringe. But at the last minute, its government, who is sponsoring the piece, said that the play would "hurt the sensibility of Americans" and would not let the troupe journey here.
That qualm stems from the U.S.'s role in the islands' tragic history -- and the Mauritians not understanding that Americans won't be too surprised to discover yet another atrocity perpetrated in our names in pursuit of dubious military aims.
Up until the 1960s, the tiny archipelago, which is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, had been the pawn of various European colonial powers, most recently the British, who brought indentured servants there to harvest its lucrative palm oil. The islands were considered a part of Mauritius, but the Mauritians were all too ready to cede the territory when Britain made it the condition of their own independence, granted in 1968.
When that happened, the approximately 2,000 residents of Diego Garcia (the largest island of the chain), many of whom had been living there for generations, were deported from their homeland. (The British then leased it to Americans, who used it as a military base from which to fight first the Communists, then the Arabs.)
Many of the Chagossians settled in Mauritius; others, in England. In both countries, Chagossians have been suing to get their home back, but with discouraging results. And with the passage of time and the dying off of Chagossians who actually remember the Chagos Islands, the goal becomes murkier: Should children who have never seen their parents' birthplace move back to the middle of nowhere?
In short, this tale has, for the right group of artists, the makings of excellent drama: Underdogs fight for justice against European colonialism, American exceptionalism, litigious bureaucracies and the onslaught of time.
Unfortunately, Trup Sapsiway is not that group. The play, written and directed by Gaston Valayden, simplifies the story into melodrama. His characters (played by Marsel Poinen, Aarti Tacouri, Christopher Ratsizaonen and himself) are either Uncle Tom figures who mime going about their indentured servitude with dopey grins or British and American officials whose inhumanity is communicated with un-ironic evil cackles. Chagossians talk about the gulf between their lives and life on Mauritius with lines like, "here it's beautiful," and, "life is so different there."
Other bits of exposition are relayed as lecture, complete with historical dates, while the interesting issues of nationhood, Chagossian identity, and how the just solution (if there is one) might have evolved over time are glossed over. Instead, children repeatedly play with their pantomimed dogs, the better to artificially heighten the pathos of the Brits' admittedly most barbaric act: burning alive all the Chagossians' pets. But when the Chagossians finally realize what's going to happen to them, their emotions are expressed with a slow, wide-eyed, mouth-agape turn toward the audience worthy only of the cheesiest silent film. A ubiquitously deployed sound cue, inexplicable mid-sentence exits and arbitrary blocking (at one point, the two younger actors bend over to make benches for the older actors to sit on) only further undermine the tale.
To be fair, much of this craftsmanship stems from different cultural norms. Mauritian art is strongly influenced by Bollywood (hence seemingly unmotivated bursts into dance), so it's probable that Fringe audiences will miss many of the original production's resonances.
But Trup Sapsiway doesn't get off the hook so easily. The Madogs of Diego raises important questions about story ownership. Trup Sapsiway is Mauritian, and the Mauritians, the troupe readily admits in its post-show Q&A, persecuted the Chagossians once they arrived. What's more, because the play is sponsored by the Mauritian government (who, according to the actors, only fully revealed the way it bargained away the Chagossians a few years ago), it's questionable how deep the production would ever be able to go.
The troupe clearly had honorable intentions, and it's a huge achievement that it was able to get a visa to perform this year. Still, this story must also be told by the people who lived the experience -- and soon, before they die off.
The Madogs of Diego continues through Sept. 18 at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. Admission is free.
For the historical context in this article, I am indebted to the Chagos Islands scholarship of Brian Coyne, a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford.