Playwright and musician Jennifer Chase describes herself as a Francophile who loves double entendres and the slippery way communication works across languages.
Chase is best known for her rock opera, La Caroline, which she wrote with musician and veteran Folio Weekly Magazine music columnist John Citrone, set in present-day New York and France and in 16th-century French and Timucuan Northeast Florida.
In long talks with her French friend Lucie Dauteur Little, the subject of Chase’s new play, Cracking La Coque, Chase was delighted by the brilliance of Little’s accidental mixed-language portmanteau words, like her apology for feeling “dis-asperated.”
“Lucie’s talking about growing up,” Chase said. “Boys said she’d rien à manger, ‘nothing to eat,’ meaning she was flat-chested. She tells me it’s a difficult time, her parents are getting divorced, and she hadn’t even ‘cracked her cock.’ I had no idea what she meant.”
Little had mixed her English and French. Coque is French for “shell.” She hadn’t cracked out of her shell.
We’re sitting in Chase’s studio in CoRK, the complex of former industrial buildings converted into artists’ studios at the corner of Rosselle and King streets in Riverside. Chase writes equally here and in the treehouse in her backyard elsewhere in the district.
With her long dreadlocks, long skirts, bangles, and a warm hug for everyone, Chase is a Jacksonville icon. She loves all things French and says, “French culture finds its way into all my creative work.”
It’s no wonder the subject of her newest play is Lucie Dauteur Little, owner of Little Family Crêpes, whose food truck you’ll find each Saturday at Riverside Arts Market. Each crêpe recipe is named for a family member or friend. In the play, Little plays herself.
Last May, when Chase and Little decided to work together, they went walking through Riverside and ended up at Sweet Theory Baking Co. on King Street.
“I had my recorder and told Lucie, ‘Just tell me stories. Tell me stories about anything.’”
Chase points to a long stretch of tape on her studio wall, where she kept a timeline of Little’s life stories while writing the play.
Several of the vignettes in Cracking La Coque tell of Little’s grandmother, who ran her own restaurant in France. One photograph shows her grandmother and co-restaurateurs standing by a long, bus-like vehicle that braved Nazi occupation in World War II to travel the South of France serving food. French mountains form the background, and the vehicle seems a prototype of the food truck.
The play parallels lives between generations. The premise centers on a crêpe vendor, and Little plays a fictional version of herself, known only as La Vendeuse. She’s pregnant, forced to hand the reins of her arts market crêperie over to an apprentice, but fights with herself to relinquish control, even at the point of giving birth.
“Teaching her apprentice how to make particular crêpes,” Chase said, “triggers certain stories.”
Once again, Chase’s work crosses continents and eras, bringing generations together in disparate places.
One pivotal scene shows Little recalling her grandmother’s experience during Nazi-occupied France, “hearing gunshots, she’s pregnant with her eighth child while feeding everybody else, and she gives birth … [to a] stillborn.”
Several threads unite these stories, including the pop songs of Claude François, known endearingly in France as “Cloclo.” Little was born the year Cloclo died.
“I’m interested in cultural assumptions,” Chase said, “like James Baldwin’s idea that you have to get out of your country and live under another set of assumptions to understand you first lived with any such assumptions at all.”
When Chase told Little she didn’t know Claude François’s music, Little said everybody knew Cloclo. Didn’t Chase know Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? — the American version of Cloclo’s “Comme d’habitude”?
Cracking La Coque is part of Chase’s unCoRKed Series, which features “raw page to stage” performances she described as “estrogen-enhanced works in progress.”
UnCoRKed is a circle of women writers and artists, including Chase, Little, Kathleen King — who acts in the play and whose paintings will be exhibited during performances — Laura Fincham, and Eva Sonnenberg Matthews, who starred in Chase’s Eva Chase Wood and also appears in Cracking La Coque. Stephanie Natale Frus directs the play.