It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for anything that says France – and specifically Paris. So when I saw that our very own Steppenwolf Theatre Company was presenting Belleville, a production about an American expatriate couple living in this gentrifying, edgy quartier in the City of Light, I was determined to check it out before its run ends Aug. 25.
During my year of living and working in the French village of Samois-sur-Seine, I made it to Belleville twice – and both times I went with friends to hear live music at hipster clubs. This Parisian ‘hood is that kind of place – and one that likely would draw young Americans like Abby and Zack, the main characters in Steppenwolf’s play. Without giving away too much of the suspenseful plot, here’s how the theater describes Belleville:
“Newly married American expats Zack and Abby live an enviably hip existence in the colorful, multi-ethnic neighborhood of Belleville, Paris. But when a series of small, unexpected encounters escalates the tension between them, some surprising cracks in the foundation of their isolated yet idyllic life begin to show. Belleville is a taut, edgy psychological thriller that asks: does anyone really know who they’re with?”
The 1 hour, 40-minute play (with no intermission), laced with French music, hip-hop and the language itself, peels back the onion that is Abby’s and Zack’s relationship. It also introduces us to Alioune and Amina, an African-French married couple with roots in Senegal who are Abby’s and Zack’s landlords. Their stability is a marked contrast from the erratic, fragile nature of the Americans’ marriage, which plays out entirely within their Belleville flat.
How much of this fragility due to Abby and Zack being foreigners far away from home, from family, from a life where others know their individual and collective histories? As a two-time expat myself – first in Florence, Italy, then seven years later in that French village – it’s a notion that strikes close to home. Granted, I’ve never moved abroad with a spouse, but questions of self-identity (“Who am I when I’m away from everyone and everything that’s familiar?”) constantly bubbled to the surface. But carving out a place for yourself in a community of like-minded people – whether or not they look like you, are fellow immigrants, or come from similar cultural backgrounds – can make all the difference. When you don’t, expat life becomes a whole other challenge.
If I were planning a move to Paris (and someday I do still plan to live there), Belleville’s a place I’d highly consider. It looks and feels like a veritable United Nations, with different ethnicities and faiths, cuisines and cultures bumping up against each other. The district used to be home to many of the city’s Chinese residents; today, many North and sub-Saharan Africans as well as Southeast Asians live here. You’re also likely to find artsy pioneers who make or listen to live music in the area’s many clubs and bars. Housed largely within the city’s 19th and 20th arrondisements, Belleville’s about as far northeast as you can get and still be in Paris. It’s off the basic Parisian tourist path, but definitely worth a stop for travelers looking for a bit more edge and flavor.
Those looking to hear small bands play world music in eclectic venues – perhaps the sorts of places Abby, Zack, Alioune and Amina would visit in their own ‘hood – should check out La Bellevilloise. From eateries to live sounds and an amazing upstairs terrace, this former co-operative has it all. And for a green experience, there’s Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a towering park with waterfalls, walking paths and the hip and laid-back Rosa Bonheur hangout for food, drinks, dance and conversation.
But I digress. If you’re game for Steppenwolf’s 100-minute foray into France – and how these couples’ lives exist in this space – you’d better move fast and get to Belleville by Aug. 25. Its Tuesday-Friday performances are at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 3 and 7:30PM, and the final performance is Sunday at 3PM.
Not sure when you can go want to save some cash? Try to get in on Steppenwolf’s ’20 for $20,’ as the theater saves 20 seats for each performance and offers these same-day seats for just $20. They’re available only over the phone, giving everyone an equal shot at getting through the phone line. Call the theater at 312.335.1650 – and if the line rings busy, keep calling until you get through. Another option: arrive at the theater an hour before each performance and any remaining tickets are half-price. You can show up two hours early and get a number to secure your place in that hour-before line.
If you go, please share your impressions. How prominently does the Belleville and Parisian setting figure into the play’s plot – and could it have taken place anyplace else? I’d love to hear what you think!
Michael Brosilow Photographs