Minette et Lise

A truly legendary name in Haitian history, Minette, was freed woman of African descent or an Affranchi.  Minette et Lise (her sister) broke through staggering racial barriers of the late 16th century to become a star performers on the colonial stage. Minette et Lise fought to find both their artistic and a political voices, using their story as a bridge to cross over and examine all encompassing questions about politics, art, sexuality, and revolutionary change.

Artist Rendering of Minette et Lise
Artist Rendering of Minette et Lise

Minette and Lise were born in PortauPrince in Saint Domingue in the affranchi community. Their father was whiteand their mother an affranchi of African originThe word affranchi in Haiti and other French Caribbean colonies was a term used specifically for an emancipated slave. The white colonizers generally used the word for all free people of color (gens de couleur libre). Most of those were mulattoesor of mixed raceand some were born free. The word has its roots in the French word for emancipation – “affranchisement“, or enfranchisement

The sisters were discovered by Madame Acquariean actress and singer of the PortauPrince Theatrewho offered them lessons in actingwhich they acceptedIn 1780they debuted in the ballet la Danse sur le Volcan.  However, Minette was also a talented vocalistand on Christmas Day in 1780they were contracted at the theatre by François SaintMartin.

Because of her race, Minette’s very presence onstage was always risky and her voice was constantly weaponized.  In 1780, Minette performed onstage for the first time. Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet in the novel Amour, colère et folie , dramatized the scene of Minette’s debut by imagining the terror the young girl must have felt as she stared out at the crowd: with rows and rows of white faces looking up at her, expecting to be entertained. And when the violin struck its first chord, Minette opened her mouth but no sound came out.

Then, Minette looked up, high into the box seats, which in the segregated theater were reserved for people of color.  “Jammed together and piled on top of one another,” Vieux-Chauvet writes, “they seemed attached to each other in an immense solidarity that suddenly revealed itself to her. They were waiting, too. There was something so distressing in their eyes it made her want to scream.” And when Minette saw them, a “series of images unfurled in her memory at a dizzying pace” – of her people being whipped, the terrifying sound of lashes, and finally the empowering voice of a friend telling her that now her voice had become her weapon. So when the violin hit the opening note for a third time, “her voice rang out, crystal clear, warm and so full that a long murmur of admiration ran through the audience.” In that moment,  Minette understood why she sang, because she was called to show her humanity and be a beacon of hope and liberation for her people.  And by February of 1781Minette performed as Isabelle in the Opera Isabelle et Gertrude.

Although Saint Domingue was a known slave societyit was not forbidden for nonwhites to work on the stageMinette became quite famous; as she rivaled the French singer, Jeanne-Marie Marsan la Blanche, who was considered the creme de la creme of Cap Haitian.  Many in colonial Haiti criticized Francois SaintMartin for degrading art by hiring performers of African descent. 

Minette’s career attracted envy and gossip; ore likely provoked by her luxurious costumesMinette and Lise sang in concerts and operas during the 1780samong them SylvainZémire et AzorAucassin et NicoletteLAmant jaloux and La caravane du CaireLise was not as successful as Minettebut had a good career touring the theatres of PortauPrinceLéogâneCayes and SaintMarc after a break through performance in Cayes in 1784.

The sisters were the most popular nonwhite actors before the revolutionThey were also among the first nonwhite actors on stageSadly Minette et Lise were both killed in 1789 during the first revolt in Haiti before the Haitian revolution of 1791.

French colonial SaintDomingue (now Haitihad three social classes that arose out of the institution of slavery: French plantersaffranchisa small elite class of mixed racesome of whom became landowners and slaveholders in turnand enslaved AfricansThe affranchis were usually lightskinned (mulattoesfree persons of color, often the offspring of white French slaveholders and enslaved African women whom they took for mistresses and who had their children.

There were tensions with both whites and enslaved AfricansMany whites used “affranchis” for all free people of coloralthough it specifically meant “exslave“, so referred to free Africans rather than mulattoesThe institution of slavery confused ideas about status and raceAmbitious mulattoes sometimes distanced themselves from their African roots in an attempt to gain acceptance from the white colonistsAs they advanced in society, “affranchis” also held land and slavesSome acted as creditors for plantersOne of their leadersthe indigo planter Julien Raimondclaimed the “affranchis” owned a third of all the slaves in the colonyMany were committed to maintaining slavery in the early years of the French Revolution and Haitian Revolution.

After the Haitian Revolution and years of disruptionmost of the planters leftThe society evolved into the “affranchis” and the masses of former slaves

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