Atlanta’s French-language Theatre Premiers Original Film: Code Noir available for streaming in March

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Théâtre du Rêve (Theatre of the Dream), Atlanta’s own Francophone theatre company, is stepping off the stage and onto the screen this March with a new film, Code Noir: les Aventures du premier Comte de Monte Cristo (Black Code: The Adventures of the First Count of Monte Cristo).

Known for innovative live productions in French with English supertitles, Théâtre du Rêve (TdR) was well-established when, like other performing arts groups, they were hit hard by Covid.

Artistic Director Carolyn Cook, who founded TdR in 1996, says it was a “leap of faith” to start creating work patrons could enjoy at home.

“We had just opened a show, Vive La Fontaine!, in March of 2020 when everything shut down,” she recalls. “It was heartbreaking to have to close it after only a week of performances, but we knew we were doing the right thing. The only question was, what now?”

From Stage to Screen

Cook and her artistic collaborators decided to rise to the occasion and developed a series of Virtual Salons – online gatherings with performances, breakout room conversations, and interviews – to explore writers from across the Francophone world. Once they began creating video content for Salons, it was a logical step to start making short films.

Code Noir centers on two characters: General Alex Dumas, a heroic real-life figure who flourished during the French Revolution, and Sandrine Boudreaux, a fictional modern-day New Orleans defense attorney of French descent. The two meet mysteriously in a prison cell, where the real Dumas was held as a political captive in the late 1700s, and their encounter has a deep impact on both.

Thandiwe Thomas DeShazor and Carolyn Cook in Code Noir; photo by Felipe Barral

History, Drama, Romance — and French!

The product of a French father and African mother, Alex Dumas was born Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in the colony of St. Domingue, now Haiti. (The film’s title, Code Noir, refers to the document governing slavery in the French colonies.) Dumas lived as a slave during part of his childhood and became a staunch supporter of justice and equality as an adult.

During his encounter with Sandrine, he recounts stories of adventure on the Caribbean shore; romance and marriage in the French village of Villers-Cotterêts; and military conquests in the Alps and Egypt, where he served in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte – a posting that led, directly or indirectly, to his imprisonment.

Code Noir is bilingual, using French and English to explore Dumas’s past and wrestle with the mysterious situation he and Sandrine face. (Subtitles are available.) Cook, who plays Sandrine, also portrays the many French-speaking characters who help and hinder Dumas’s progress. Michelle Taylor Willis plays the general’s mother, Marie Cessette Dumas, whose name he chose to take when he enlisted in the French army.

Michelle Taylor Willis as Marie Cessette Dumas ; photo by Felipe Barral

Why This Story? Why Now?

Director Lauren Morris believes Code Noir grapples with questions of justice we still face today. “It’s about why the fight for justice matters,” she says. And actor Thandiwe DeShazor, who plays Dumas, says it’s especially poignant to revisit the story in 2022.

“We’ve been through a pandemic, and Alex is a person essentially quarantined,” says DeShazor. “It’s definitely great to attack to play from that angle, with those experiences.”

Experimenting with Genre

Though she uses the term “film” as shorthand, Cook is quick to point out that Code Noir started as a play in 2019, and became a filmed piece in response to current circumstances.

“This thing we’re making is actually something new,” says Morris, who also directed the stage production. “It’s not trying to be a substitute for sitting in the room together [in the theatre], and it’s not trying to be a traditional film. It’s this new animal that we’re learning to dance with, and that’s one of the things about the process that I found to be remarkable.”

Director of Photography Felipe Barral agrees. “When you combine the best of the theatre world with the best of the filmmaking world, then you’re making something that is meaningful, that is beautiful,” he says.

Cook, Barral, and Morris on the set of Code Noir; photo by Eliana Marianes

Code Noir: les Aventures du premier Comte de Monte Cristo will be available for streaming March 8-31, 2022 at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/59803. Théâtre du Rêve will host a special Virtual Salon on Sunday, February 20 to give viewers an exclusive look behind the scenes of filming.

For more information, visit www.theatredureve.org/code-noir.

For even more French theatre, see Clyde Chabot at Emory University March 16-19.