Théâtre du Rêve's new film 'Code Noir' shares the story of the first Black French general
You’ve probably heard of the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo,” but have you heard of the first Black French general who inspired it? General Alex Dumas was the son of an enslaved Black woman and a white Frenchman, born in Sainte-Domingue, now known as Haiti. He later became the first person of color in the French military to be appointed brigadier-general, divisional-general and general-in-chief of a French army. Dumas’ story is the subject of Théâtre du Rêve’s new film “Code Noir: the Adventures of the First Count of Monte Cristo.” Carolyn Cook, producing artistic director of Théâtre du Rêve, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom and actor Thandi DeShazor, who plays General Dumas.
Origins of the Théâtre du Rêve:
“I had dreamed of acting in French from the time I was about 19, and I was studying for a French major in college … I just got filled up with excitement about performing in French. It didn’t happen during the rest of my college career, and then it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and finally, I just said, ‘If this is going to happen, it’s going to be because I make it happen,’” said Cook. “The only thing I could think of to call the producing organization was ‘Theater of the Dream,’ because it had been my dream for so long.”
The surprising and singular life of the Black Count:
“He was born on the island of Sainte-Domingue, and his mother, Marie Cezette Dumas, had been enslaved … She was with, and probably married to, his father, who was a French aristocrat who had kind of gone rogue,” said Cook. “But his father decided to return to France and reclaim his place in the French aristocracy in, I believe, 1775, and then he sent for his son. Unfortunately, to get the money for his passage to France, Thomas Alexandre’s father sold him … with the right of repurchase … This is a man who crossed the Atlantic in the other direction as a slave. But once he was on French soil, the law stated that there are no slaves in France, and from that time forward, he was a member of the French aristocracy.”
“He decided to join the French army as a private, and to do that, he had to enlist in something other than the family’s aristocratic name, and he chose the name of his mother — Marie Cezette Dumas — and from there, I guess the rest is history,” Cook recounted. “He went on to rise in the ranks of the Revolutionary Army. As soon as the revolution broke out, he became an important figure, and he even fought alongside Napoleon … He married a lovely woman from France, and they had two children, one of whom was Alexandre Dumas, who became the writer and the author of the Count of Monte Cristo.”
Playing the long-hidden historical figure Dumas:
“General Dumas was such a strong, swarthy type of character, but there’s this vulnerability to him that you begin to tap into because when we meet him, he’s in prison and he’s been in there for some months quarantined, but through the flashbacks, we get to delve into his childhood, his relationship with his wife, his passion about freedom and justice. And you see cracks in that exterior, and it was beautiful to be able to still be this hard person, but still, be able to show softness,” said DeShazor.
“What I love about this story in particular … it draws parallels between our justice system now and what Alex Dumas had to go through. In many cases, you can see some parallelism, and there’s a perseverance that both of them had to come together and realize. It’s about history, it’s about race and it really tells the story about us not repeating the past,” said DeShazor.
He added, “It’s an unsung hero. It’s someone that we can draw from. For people who don’t know that this man existed, now they do, and now they can take pride in him, just like I took pride in his son when I was younger.”
Théâtre du Rêve’s filmed production of “Code Noir: the Adventures of the First Count of Monte Cristo” is available to stream at www.theatredureve.com