Still shy of his 30th birthday, Édouard Louis has become something of a wunderkind in French intellectual circles. He published his first novel at age 22, a poignant semiautobiographical account of growing up gay and poor in a working-class town in France. He followed that success with an equally sensational novel based on his experiences surviving rape and attempted murder on Christmas Eve when he was just 20. That work, “History of Violence,” was adapted into a three-person play by the German director Thomas Ostermeier that deployed actors holding iPads and iPhones to record the action.
Ostemeier reteams with Louis for “Who Killed My Father,” which opened on Sunday at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse (where “History of Violence” also had a successful run three years ago). This time, Louis himself performs a monologue recounting his fraught relationship with his factory-worker father — a series of misunderstandings and bungled communications that Louis reinterprets in ways that are both universal and very, very French.
Louis sketches a portrait of a man who grew up in a large family marked by domestic violence and abandonment by his own dad when he was 5. A man who seemed outwardly ashamed of the early signs of Édouard’s gay identity — and yet still bought him the cherished box set of “Titanic” (and who had once cross-dressed himself). And a man whose dismissal of intellectual pursuits doomed him to low-wage jobs that kept him from economic advancement and also broke his body — leaving him in an increasingly perilous state as the French government cut back on social-welfare programs for people like him.
Louis, who begins his performance quoting the scholar Ruth Gilmore about how racism is “the exposure of some populations to premature death,” seems to want to expand the definition of oppressed people to include not only the LGBTQ community but members of the working class like his dad. And he grows increasingly strident in his later denunciations of recent French political leaders whose policies have made their lives worse.
Clad in a gray hoodie and skinny jeans, Louis cuts a lithe, somewhat aloof figure on stage. Even when donning a wig and breaking into a lip-sync dance performance to Britney Spears or Radiohead or the Europop band Aqua, there is something reserved about him. He speaks quietly into microphones in French, with English subtitles projected onto a large screen along with video clips (designed by Sébastien Dupouey and Marie Sanchez) — except during one remarkable sequence describing his boyhood act of “revenge” against his father.
Addressing the audience in English (“because I really want you to get it”), he shares a story about an explosive family confrontation amid clouds of cigarette smoke (“You know, French people”). The confrontation involves his father, his older brother and many layers of betrayal — including by Édouard’s own mother. And it severs family ties in ways that allow Louis to survive the fallout, and also to find a path forward, and outward, and eventually inward.