I first saw him as Bhishma and Parashurama in the Peter Brook/Jean-Claude Carriere CICT adaptation of The Mahabharata in France in the early 1980s, and he was exquisite: a towering willowy figure, enormously dynamic when still as a tree, sensitive and immediate in his presence, right t/here, eyes aglow like hot coals, his soft gaze an event. Subsequently I was fortunate to be able to watch him perform Prospero in Brook's luminous Tempest at the Bouffes du Nord, as well as in The Man Who, in Qui est la? (as the ghost of Hamlet's father), and as Tierno Bokar in the French adaptation from Amadou Hampate Ba's text, also at the Bouffes.
In an interview with Cynthia Guttman in 2001, he said:
"I come from a culture where nature is very important in a person’s life. Your soul is first incarnated in a tree, then in an animal and then in a living human being. Some people are even named after trees. All this means everything in the world is alive. Unfortunately, humans increasingly think they’re the only living beings on earth.
In French, you can point to someone and say “there’s a person.” In several African languages, when you say “person,” the word is followed by something that means roughly “the person of the person.” That is, each human being comprises many identities, which are in fact other people. Daily life is about discovering all these beings within. This can only happen through meeting other people.
“When you meet another, instead of losing yourself in his eyes, recognize yourself – and perhaps you’ll see yourself", the saying goes. Our wise men tell us that ignorance is the worst thing that can happen to anyone, worse than illness or death. And the most ignorant person of all, they say, is someone who has never stepped outside his or her house".
In his blog, my friend Andrew Todd has described his responses after receiving a text on his mobile in the Himalayas, the news of Sotigui's death thousands of miles away in Paris. Andrew writes:
"I have been thinking of him all week, for odd reasons: I keep seeing groups of water buffalo and repeat his line from l’Homme Qui: ‘Un bufle. Deux bufles. Trois bufles.’ Furthermore, he always gave a namaste-style greeting in lieu of bowing after the show; and I remembered, every time I passed bamboo (many times a day) how he struggled to explain to South African customs officials that his baggage of twenty bamboo poles was, in fact, teaching equipment. Oddly enough I’m not too upset, at least not for him: he seemed, more than anyone I have ever met, in touch with universe, fearless, grounded, eternal. I had already seen him dead, as a stunningly convincing ghost in Qui Est La?
Our loss, however, is immense.
For Andrew Todd's obituary in The Guardian (3 May 2010), with an additional obituary by Peter Brook, see here