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Theatre in Review: Who Killed My Father (St. Ann's Warehouse)

Édouard Louis. Photo: Teddy Wolff

At one point in Édouard Louis' theatrical memoir, the writer-performer recalls the night when, as a boy of seven, he organized an entertainment at a dinner party thrown by his parents. (It may have been their first inkling that their son was, as they say, different.) The "pretend concert," which featured choreography and lip-synching, was a tragically misguided attempt at winning the attention of his emotionally remote father. Louis recreates a bit of the routine, a kid's idea of fabulousness, ending with his arms exuberantly outstretched. He is greeted in silence, of course, because he is performing to an empty chair; this is, after all, a solo show. But we also understand that his effort, all those years ago, was greeted with icy silence. He does it again, this time bigger, ending with a greater flourish, again to no response. He tries a third time, then falls to the floor, exhausted and mortified. "I danced harder to make you notice me, but you wouldn't look," he says.

It's a moment of pure heartbreak -- one that Louis will revisit obsessively throughout the evening -- and it encapsulates the unhappy parent-child relationship at the heart of Who Killed My Father. This is the third piece from the director Thomas Ostermeier to be presented at St. Ann's -- the others are Returning to Reims and History of Violence -- all of them focusing on young gay/queer French men who flee the provinces for Paris but can't leave their pasts behind. Like the others, Who Killed My Father, a co-production of Schaubühne Berlin and Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, begins as an exploration of personal trauma, gradually broadening its argument to indict a socially constructed masculinity aligned with a political system that fails its poorest members. Or, as Louis puts it, "Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality equals poverty."

Can he make this charge stick? It may depend on where you live. You don't need me to note how the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have profitably trafficked in homophobia; for politicians like Ron DeSantis, demonizing the LGBTQ community is a sure path to success at the ballot box. Nevertheless, using his personal history, Louis makes a persuasive case that his father's coldness, especially regarding his gay son, was a symptom of something deeper and more pervasive, a poverty of the soul and pocketbook alike.

As the piece begins, Louis' father, at fifty, is a basket case felled by diabetes and high cholesterol. "You need a machine to breathe at night or your heart will stop," Louis says, adding that, after a trip to the bathroom, "the thirty feet you'd walked had left you out of breath." (This is the rare theatre piece written in the second person; except for one passage, it is delivered in French, with English surtitles.) Looking back, the writer explores a psychological terrain covered with scar tissue, desperately seeking evidence, however buried, of parental warmth. He was elated to hear his mother say that, when dancing, he resembles his father -- a comment the older man dismissed as "bullshit." Having discovered gag photos of his dad dressed as a majorette, he says, "I pored over those images of you all night long." Recalling him uncharacteristically watching an opera on television, he notes, "When the soprano sang her lament, your eyes were glistening." Such hints -- of a sense of humor and an interior life -- were tantalizing to the young Louis, whose queerness was already apparent to all, if not to be discussed.

But, as Louis notes, his father also grew up in an abusive household, a forced witness to wife-beating; on hearing of his own dad's death, he announced, "I'm going to buy a bottle to celebrate." Having dropped out of school -- real men, it seems, don't get educations -- he escaped his hometown for a few years, running wild in the South of France, before returning and entering the factory that employed everyone he knew. Donning a macho identity like a suit of armor, he shut down his emotional life, drinking heavily and grousing that the was country being ruined by foreigners and gays.

Despite the pained gulf between father and son, however, it is Louis' mother who, in a searing sequence, brutally humiliates him with an epithet, casting him as a figure of shame to the family. The badly stung boy exacts his revenge, ratting on her for giving money to his drug-addict brother and inciting a fistfight. Still, it is the brother who is the aggressor, reacting to being called "a loser." Their father, a survivor of physical abuse, was determined to break the cycle of violence. But he also set the psychological tone -- the absence of affection, the burden of shame, and the deadly stoicism -- that ultimately poisoned the entire family.

Still, Louis recalls stray moments of tenderness, and he draws close to his ailing, prematurely elderly father, coming to see him not as a monster but a victim of capitalist exploitation. His back is mangled in an on-the-job accident, leaving him at first crippled and barely able to communicate. The gradual withdrawal of benefits and demonization of "slackers" by several presidential administrations have their effects, however. Forced to take a physically demanding job as a street-sweeper and working ever-longer hours for a pittance, his health collapses. The piece climaxes with Louis' indictment of presidents, ranging from Jacques Chirac to Emmanuel Macron, for their callous indifference to the working classes. (Who Killed My Father goes a long way toward explaining the fury of the gilet jaunes, who bedeviled Macron early on. It also casts a light on the recent French elections, which were marked by overtones of grievance and the near collapse of the traditional left- and right-wing parties.) The presidents' photos are part of a macabre display that includes props representing the ruined spine and lungs of Louis' father.

Louis' argument is, I suppose, aligned with the concept of intersectionality, but his reasoning is so rigorous, his presentation so unsentimental, that it acquires a gravity that transcends today's slogans. Simply put: Homophobia is but one tool -- racism and xenophobia are others -- used to divide the poor, keeping them preoccupied and docile even as their employers and elected officials fail them. (Claudia Rankine makes a similar argument in Help, seen at the Shed a few months ago.) The son's ultimate prognosis: "You belong to the class of humans who politics has doomed to an early death."

Ostermeier has by now perfected this essay format, and Louis -- a literary wunderkind at 22 and still disconcertingly boyish at 29 -- is both an astoundingly mature observer and a strikingly disciplined performer, even when lip-synching to Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" or Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On". (These songs and the film Titanic were touchstones of his boyhood, which, you won't be surprised to hear, signaled to his parents that they were, however unhappily, raising a queer youth.) This production is the most austere of Ostermeier's efforts, with Nina Wetzel's spare scenic design dominated by the surprisingly generic video imagery (mostly of highways and landscapes) by Sébastian Dupouey and Marie Sanchez. Erich Schneider's lighting does an effective job of carving out Louis from the large upstage video screen. Costume designer Caroline Tavernier puts Louis in a Pokémon T-shirt, as if summoning up the vulnerable boy he once was.

Who Killed My Father ends with a call to action of sorts, although one must wonder if the French political world, which is opaque to most Americans even on a good day, isn't thoroughly distracted right now by the war in Ukraine. Still, Louis is urging us to imagine the world differently. As he conclusively demonstrates, the world we have is running desperately short on love. --David Barbour

(23 May 2022)

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