In the wake of Josephine Baker
By JERRY TALLMER
Claudie and Alphine, black and beautiful, rock stars in the makingClaudie is also a poethave been best friends all their lives, all but bedded lovers, though very different in temperament. To Claudie, the high-flying, dissolute Alphine is “a rock star slut.” To Alphine, the ascetic, earnest, germ-phobic Claudie is “a rock star nun.”
Now Claudie, with her mother dead of drugs, her twin brother (one of Alphine’s sweethearts) dead of drugs, so many others dead of drugs, has an announcement to make: “Alphine, I’m leaving.”
ALPHINE: What do you mean by leaving?
CLAUDIE: Nana says I got family over there.
ALPHINE: Over where?
CLAUDIE: Over in Paris.
ALPHINE: The Paris in France? The France across the Atlantic Ocean?
CLAUDIE: Nana [her grandmother] says my father…
ALPHINE: The father you’ve never met?… The father who abandoned your mother when she was pregnant with twins? The one who left her without a dime or a forwarding address?
Claudie goes anyway. And in Paris she findsnot her fatherbut her spirit, her métier, her self. She also finds her sexualthat is to say, lesbianself.
A year later, there is a knock on Claudie’s door in Paris. Standing there is Alphine. The deaths and the life back homepolitical and otherwisehave proved too much for her too. How long does she plan to stay? “As long as you say, I’ll stay,” she declares. Actually this newest expatriate, there in the doorway, is aching for a fix. Yet not too many months from now, Alphine with her fiery voice and go-to-hell manner will have become the rage of tout Paris, sometimes in a duo with Claudie, more often as a solo shooting star. Until that star burns itself out.
And Claudie, solo, sings: “What good is a rebel / If the rebel turns up dead? followed by all the other stinging lines of what is, in truth, a play that’s a powerhouse poem.
Lenelle Moïse, tall, slim, brown, and beautiful, is not only the playwright and songwriter of “Expatriate,” opening July 16 at the Culture Project, but appears in it as Claudie opposite Karla Mosley as Alphine. Between them, they also portray three men, the first a dead brother, then a cool black Parisian taxi driver, and the third a condescending, antagonistic horse’s ass radio talk-show host.
“This is my first play with music,” says its creator. “So I’m a new singer, but a happy one. There’s a lot of sorrow and mourning and groaning in it, but at rehearsals we try to find the joy and the laughs. It makes the grieving that much stronger.”
All those deaths from drugs = personal experience? People you’ve known?
“I have not personally known any people who died yet of drugs. I’ve certainly known people who have struggled with drugs. Artistic people who are now in recovery. The great artists like Billie Holiday, Miles DavisI certainly wanted to explore that. And to explore what makes all these people like Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Richard Wright [one of the first of the pre-war black expatriates] go to Paris; what was the driving force?”
Well, then Ms. Moïse, and have you yourself been to Paris?
“I haven’t,” she responds, somewhere between girlish and straightforward. “It’s all a bit of a fantasy, not personal experience. Yet,” she said, as before. “I’m actually allergic to marijuana,” she throws in. “Very, very allergic. Makes me sneeze.”
Aha, the rock star nun.
What has lately pleased her very much is the woman who came up to her after a performance in upstate New York and said: “You told my sister’s story.” The sister had been Carole Frederick, a singer who made it big as an expat in Paris, but then lost it all to too early death.
Lenelle Moïse (pronounced Moy-ease) was born 28 years ago in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but her hometown is Cambridge, Massachusetts, to which her parentsbus driver father, medical assistant motherexpatriated when she was tiny.
“So I grew up a working-class girl in this non-working-class town. In my high-school gym there were 70 flags for the 70 countries from which all of us came.” That was the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, but way before that, back when she was 5, she had already begun writing.
“One day my godfather, an out-of-work poet himself, was baby-sitting me. I said: ‘I’m bored.’ He threw a piece of paper at me and said: ‘Go write a poem.’”
That was the start. Where is that poem today? “My grandmother has it.”
With a BA from Ithaca College, she went on for an MFA from Smith College, an MFA thesis being a play called “The Many Faces of Nia,” in which a Jewish mother, apprised by her son that his girlfriend Nia is black, tries to imagine what Nia can be like“anywhere from a Haitian boat woman to a hip-hop boast rapper.” And of course, when the son finally shows up with Nia“means ‘perfect’ in Swahili”she’s like none of mom’s fantasies at all.
Another Moïse drama is “Matermorphosis,” in which a mother another mother
Turns into a giant bug?
“That’s it. When she hits menopause.”
That will be some considerable time from now for beautiful, bodacious Lenelle Moïse, who lives half in Northampton, Massachusetts, and half on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with her partner, a photographer and artist.
“Expatriate” is her sixth and most recent play. It enters previews July 7 under Tamilla Woodard’s directionand choreography by Nicco Annanatat the Culture Project, 55 Mercer Street, just above Canal.
By the way, Ms. Moïse, there’s been a whopping political contest lately between a black person and a female person, which you are and you are.
“Nobody’s ever asked me about that,” she cuts in with a half-smile. “Well, I really didn’t have a preference. I’m not interested in voting just for somebody who’s black or somebody who’s female. But I’m excited.”
Exciting is as exciting does. You might want to grab some of Lenelle Moïse’s excitement before she makes it, takes it, to Paris. The Paris in France. The France across the Atlantic Ocean.
EXPATRIATE. By Lenelle Moïse. Directed by Tamilla Woodard, choreographed by Nicco Annan. With Lenelle Moïse and Kara Mosely. A Culture Project presentation at 55 Mercer Street, just above Canal, (212) 352-3101.