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Djénéba Koné, Sotigui Kouyaté, and Hélène Patarot in Tierno Bokar
(Photo © Victor Pascal)
Tierno Bokar (1875-1939), the Sufi mystic and the eponymous figure at the center of Peter Brook's latest production, undoubtedly repeated one of his beliefs innumerable times to followers. He only says it twice during this simply mounted, 95-minute tribute, but twice is all Brook needs to emphasize what he obviously considers the comment's significance. The dictum is this: "There are three truths -- your truth, my truth, and the truth." Makes good sense, no? Bokar might have gone on to say, "There are as many truths as there are inhabitants of the planet, and then there's the actual truth," but he doesn't ever seem to have phrased it in that manner. He had his quotable quote and, according to Brook, stuck to it.

Given the elegant asceticism with which Brook presents Bokar and with which he's played by the rail-thin, dreadlocked Sotigui Kouyaté, the man probably wouldn't have deemed it necessary to mention that, beside truths, there are truisms. Allowing both his teachings and his life to serve as examples for disciples, he may never have felt the need to stress the difference between genuine wisdom and wisdom dispensed in the average self-help book. He may not have wanted to note that there's a fine line between these related but unequal concepts.

Yet there are times during Tierno Bokar when that line is crossed in the wrong direction. Incidentally, Brook isn't credited with the script; it's an adaptation by Marie-Hélène Estienne from Amadou Hampaté Bâ's Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar, the Sage of Bandiagara. "A theatrical research by Peter Brook" is how the 80-year-old theater veteran's credit reads, whatever "a theatrical research" means.

It's probably fair to say that Tierno Bokar attained prominence -- as have many men and women who are regarded as gurus -- through expressing common sense to people who had trouble grasping it. For that reason, it's possible that many patrons, lured to Tierno Bokar by Brook's reputation as his own brand of guru, will decide that it's isn't illuminating to listen what they've already figured out for themselves -- never mind that others are nodding their heads as if they've never before heard such sage views. There's even a sequence wherein Bokar steps aside while a son leaving for school listens to his mother dole out advice that calls to mind Polonius's so-long speech to Laertes in Hamlet. That string of bromides is usually played for laughs, but if Brook is working this one for giggles, he's not getting them.

There are giggles early on in Tierno Bokar. As Hampaté Bâ saw him, the title figure had a sense of humor about himself. What power the play has is in its depiction of Bokar the man rather than the sermonizer; it's in his acceptance of others' truths. Of course, acceptance is one of the tenets of 12-step groups; regardless, it's not a bad philosophy of life as long as misguided acceptance doesn't lead to the triumph of evil.

The conflict of Tierno Bokar is between two factions to which Bokar found himself allied. Brook looks at that problem and at how Bokar's eventual failure to accommodate both sides led to his isolation and death. One of the Sufi groups believed that what is known as the Pearl of Perfection prayer must be recited 11 times during a service; another group believed that it should be recited 12 times. (Easy for us to snicker.) Bokar, whose forebears believed in the 12-time ritual, eventually switched to the 11-time side, though he insisted that he could accept both views.

Although Brook doesn't sufficiently examine the politics that led Bokar to be a pawn in the Mali political situation -- the French rulers benefited from keeping warring factions preoccupied -- he scores via his signature theatrical tactics. There's a humility to a Peter Brook production that countervails modern excesses; Brook has the knack of stripping away gratuitous material until he's practically returned theater to ritual. He only puts on stage (here it's the Barnard gym floor) what he thinks is absolutely necessary. For this project, it's a few low stools, a number of straw mats, and a carved ladder resembling a sturdy, leafless tree. (According to the program, Abdou Ouologuem's provided the "scenic elements.") Musicians Toshi Tsuchitori and Antonin Stahly are stationed stage right, and that's pretty much that.

In addition to Kouyaté, the cast members -- often dressed in white robes called boubous -- don't so much act as appear and recite. Habib Dembélé is a vigorous narrator, Tony Mpoudja an earnest and eager acolyte, Pitcho Womba Konga a staunch 11-time advocate. Bruce Myers plays a couple of stern officials. Hélène Patarot is the Polonius-influenced mom, and Abdou Ouologuem, Rachid Djaïdani, and Djénéba Koné perform multiple chores. Collectively, they're a heterogeneous troupe obviously intended by Brook to be a metaphor for the international harmony that Bokar espoused.

Brook consistently maintains that it's "the audience's business" to decide if a play is relevant to current affairs, but there's no doubt that he -- like the eventually Christ-like Bokar -- considers the 11-time, 12-time disagreement a symbol of religious differences that lead to global misunderstandings. Would that Tierno Bokar were able to heal the resulting wounds.

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