“You’ll see, he’s a character,” immediately warns a member of the Frank Henry show team, Thursday January 25, as he pushes open the door to the artists’ entrance. At the end of a corridor, the New Eve room. White tablecloths and small lamps with gathered lampshades adorn tables designed for the moments of complicity offered by the darkness of a theater room. There is an atmosphere reminiscent of the finest hours of this historic Pigalle cabaret: glittery curtains, stars painted on the walls, red carpet and gilding, you almost think you're back at the beginning of the last century.
Almost. Because on stage, the contrast is striking. A sober setting, a coat rack and a black armchair, a backdrop where the blurred outline of a city stretches, and two prison doors. “We are going to start filming,” warns Jérémie Lippmann, the director, on the eve of the premiere. Standing on the plateau is a tall figure in a long black coat. “Can I have five minutes to concentrate?”, replies Frank Henry, who impresses as much by his tone as by his stature.
The lights go out and a phrase rings out in the darkness: “As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster”, immediately accompanied by the catchy melody of the theme song of Goodfellas by Scorcese. The tone is set. It will be a show, a story worthy of the best Hollywood scripts, a kind of exotic journey at the crossroads between France and America. Except that Frank Henry will not once advocate organized crime. The play Neither Proud nor Shameful meets a clear objective: “Deglamorize, demystify and break the romanticism of gangster life,” says the main person involved. It must be said that the trajectory of this 63-year-old former thug astounds as much as it inspires.
Robberies of banks, jewelry stores, casinos... the most villainous schemes held no secrets for the man nicknamed “The Gunsmith” because of his passion and practice with firearms. He spent 21 years behind bars for his crimes. But Frank Henry quickly clarifies: no blood crime. For an hour and a quarter, the former gangster captivates the spectators and tells how he evolved, from adolescence, in a dark world full of violence. The powerful soundtrack resonates with the backfire of stray bullets, the clicking of safes, the melody of crumpled bills, the urgency of screeching tires.
Frank Henry does not indulge in miserabilism or misplaced pride. Sometimes bitter or angry, he still manages to make his audience smile with lots of anecdotes, each more astonishing than the last. A first botched heist, a return trip to New York by Concorde to visit the mafia, an elegant “heist” at a major jeweler... This story, sometimes chilling, ultimately takes a brighter trajectory and reveals the difficulty in leaving an environment that crushes everything in its path.
Incarcerated several times, he finally had a breakthrough when his son was born and decided to take control of his life. Sent to prison again, he put his time to good use, took musicology exams, wrote four novels and even met Yves Rénier (for a long time in the role of Commissioner Moulin on TV) who would then open the doors of cinema to him. Today, Frank Henry is a writer, screenwriter, lyricist, musician and the greatest directors work with him to benefit from his knowledge of a very codified environment. Did the wolf who became a lamb keep in touch with his comrades in misfortune? “Yes, of course, some are friends. There was even one who snuck into the room during the filming earlier. But I don’t want to know what they’re doing.” He prefers to indulge in his passions, writing, music and now theater.
This is the first time that Frank Henry, a former defendant, has taken to the stage - an extremely rare case in France. The person who describes himself as “a storyteller, a storyteller” would like spectators to leave the theater saying to themselves: “This is not a film, there is nothing glamorous about the life of a gangster. Banditry is initially madness, a serious psychological imbalance,” he says. And the first actor deplores the resurgence of delinquency in France in recent months: “I am not a criminologist or sociologist, but how do you explain that there have recently been more than a hundred deaths in the neighborhoods of Marseille, other than by a society that is going south? Because banditry and delinquency follow the direction given by society and we are in an ultra-violent society. He also warns of the vicious circle that leads young people into a destructive spiral: “Delinquency is a progression, we don’t realize it but we always set the bar a little higher.”
Frank Henry has truly turned the page on his life as a gangster. The repentant bandit, disgusted by the violence of a society that he "can no longer grasp", confides that he only comes out of his "misanthropic shell" to "listen to and work with talented people", because "nothing (makes) him more admiring.” It was therefore natural that he turned to Jérémie Lippman to direct his show. “We got along like thieves! He’s quite rock’n’roll, like me. With him, I transformed into a good little soldier, which doesn’t happen to me often!”, smiles Frank Henry.
And if we had to do it again ? Would he give in to the call of banditry again? "No way !" exclaims Frank Henry.
Although he wishes to change the chaotic start of his life, he nevertheless feels no sense of shame, as the title of the piece indicates. When asked about it, he replies: “Ashamed of what? I was a thief in hard crime but I have no blood on my hands and above all I have paid my debt to society, I owe nothing. I am proud of my career because for twenty years I have had a great career and above all, today, my pride is my child. His mother died when he was a teenager. I think I managed to make a good person out of him, and that’s the most important thing for me,” he finishes, smiling.
Neither proud nor ashamed by Frank Henry, directed by Jérémie Lippmann, plays from January 26 to March 30 at the Théâtre de la Nouvelle Eve in Paris (9th).