Penobscot Theatre Company’s final offering in its all-virtual, multimedia season packs an emotional wallop in English and in French.
“Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” or “I am not Evangeline” essentially is a filmed monologue. A woman in her 60s speaks directly to the camera as she packs to downsize into retirement. The film is subtitled in both languages.
She speaks of her Acadian roots, what she learned from her French-speaking grandmothers and how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” has, in ways large and small, affected her life. The woman is named Evangeline but has gone by Eva since her college days.
Written and performed by Carolyn Cook, the hour-long piece weaves together the Le Grand Derangement (the Great Upheaval), when Acadians were forcibly removed from the United States and Canada, with the stories of today’s refugees and the conflicts they’ve fled.
In the film’s most powerful segments, Cook as Evangeline portrays her grandmothers, both strong women who raised large families in Maine. One tells the child Evangeline, in French, the story of the Acadians’ expulsion from their land by the English in the mid-18th century. The other talks about being forced to give up French and speak English only in school due to a state law enacted in 1919 and not repealed until 1960. The government’s attempt to quash her language and culture forced the woman to quit school and become an expert seamstress.
While the piece is a loving tribute to the strength and endurance of Acadian women, it is at its core about loss and the lasting impact it has on the soul. Whether it is the loss of land, language, culture or a loved one in this century or those past, loss ripples across generations inflicting pain anew.
The Bangor theater company commissioned “Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” from Theatre du Reve, an Atlanta-based theater company dedicated to bringing French language and the Francophone culture to life on the American stage. Cook is its founder and artistic director.
She found inspiration for the script in an interview with Lise Pelletier, the director of Acadian archives in Fort Kent. Pelletier talked about how while Longfellow, an American male, beautifully captured the plight and spirit of Acadians, the poem didn’t tell the whole story of the Acadians in Maine, nor did it show the strength, power and resilience of Franco-American women.
In the poem, Evangeline spends 20 years searching for Gabriel, the love she was separated from in the Le Grand Derangement. She crisscrossed the continent searching and yearning for him only to have him die in her arms when they finally were reunited. Published in 1847, “Evangeline” was a bestseller.
Shots of Cook’s monologue, filmed at her home in Clarkston, Georgia, are intercut with Jennifer Schottstaedt portraying Evangeline in a non-speaking role. She was mostly filmed outside in Georgia, which does not look much like northern Maine. Schottstaed appears on screen looking longingly into the distance when Cook reads sections from the poem.
While the film is engaging, it is impossible not to wonder while watching it what it would have looked like on the Bangor Opera House stage. Surely it would have been longer and included live musicians playing Acadian music. Certainly tall pines and the St. John River would have been elements of the set.
But that comes from a longing for live performances after such a long, dark time during a pandemic, and “Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” is successful as a film — one that educates, entertains and makes viewers acutely aware of all they’ve lost in the past year.
“Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” is available for streaming through May 9. For ticket information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 207-942-3333.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the Georgia city where the production was filmed.