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"Expatriate" Games Lenelle Moïse's new play explores the special relationship between African-American artists and France.
Lenelle Moïse looks forward to visiting Paris one day. In the meantime, the multitalented performer/poet/playwright can travel to the City of Lights virtually in her new play Expatriate, which opens this week at the Culture Project.

Moïse plays Claudie, an African-American singer/musician who, with her soul mate Alphine, rises to pop stardom in Europe. It's a story with echoes that resound from Josephine Baker to Passing Strange's Stew: the journey of the black artist from neglect or misunderstanding in the U.S. to the embrace of the Europeans, in this case specifically the French.

"It's fiction--it's really a fantasy," Moïse admits. "I've always wondered what it took for people like Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and James Baldwin to get up and go to Paris. What sort of person does that? What pushes somebody to make that sort of drastic decision? These questions prompted me, and the play is what came out."

Her answer, in part: "It takes somebody who is willing to risk everything in order to gain a sense of personal freedom." She adds, making a possibly unintentional pun: "It takes a lot of gall."

Certainly, in the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation, outspoken artists like Simone and Baldwin "lived in a context that just wouldn't hear them. And they found they could go to a place where they were actually celebrated for being black. And France in particular embraced African-Americans in a way they weren't embraced in the U.S."

Even now, in a post-segregation age in which a black man has a shot at being the next U.S. president, there's still a special relationship between France and African-Americans.

"In my research, I found there are lots of networks of African-American women over there—a present-day community that's thriving," Moïse says. "There's this special way in which France has been willing to claim people who are homeless in one way or another."

Even without having visited it firsthand, Moïse seems to have captured the truth of the self-exiled artist's story.

"Taj Mahal's sister came to see my show," Moïse recounts, referring to the American blues icon and his sister, Connie Fredericks-Malone. "And she told me about their other sister, Carole Fredericks, a big black woman with a big voice who moved to Paris in the late '70s and started a very successful singing career; the French want her to be buried on French soil. And Connie told me, 'You're telling my sister's story.' "
 
The urge to tell this particular story arose from a more local sense of not-belonging.

"I had a really good friend who was an actress, and I'd always go to see her in these off-off-off-Broadway shows," says Moïse. "She's a really strong actress and she'd be in great plays, but she always had a marginal part.

"I started to notice this trend, so I asked her, 'What would you want to play that you never get to play? What could I write for you that you would like to play?' She said, 'I've always wondered about African-American expatriates.' So I said, 'OK, I'll write you that play.' "

That actress turns out to be Karla Moseley, Moïse's co-star in Expatriate. "I wanted to create a strong role for an African-American actress who could really act, dance and sing like honey," Moïse says. "It's a pleasure to share the stage with her."

The two actresses tell the story of Claudie and Alphine in an overlapping, nonlinear fashion, with each playing multiple roles. Multiplicity, it seems, comes naturally to Moïse.

"Her father's Haitian, so questions of nationality are big with me," Moïse says. "Hyphens are big in my life. I live in that in-between place."

Click here for more information about Expatriate.