Rafael Padilla, more commonly known by his stage name Chocolat, was a clown who entertained Parisians in the early years of the 20th century, but whose work was forgotten until the late 20th and early 21st centuries when he was rediscovered. This star of French stage during the Belle Époque is played by Darius Barnes in the musical My Paris.
Rafael was born in Cuba sometime between 1865 and 1868 to a slave family. At the time, slave births were not registered, so his date of birth is uncertain. In 1878, his parents escaped Cuba but left him in the care of an elderly Cuban woman in a poor neighborhood in Havana. This woman then sold him to a Spanish trader as a farmhand for his mother near Bilbao. After his arrival, Basque farmers wanted to whitewash him with a horse brush, but at the age of 14 he fled and began working odd jobs in Bilbao, including as a street singer and porter.
The famous clown Auguste Tony Grice discovered Rafael working the docks of Bilbao, impressed by both his physical strength and his dancing. He hired him as his manservant and handyman and then made him his partner in some of his numbers, in which Rafael would act as a stuntman. The new duo would go on to public notoriety when they began performing with the New Circus of Joseph Oller in Paris during October 1886. Rafael’s stage name of Chocolat was given to him at this time by Grice. In 1888, their partnership was ended when Henri Agoust, the manager of the New Circus hired Chocolat as the star of a nautical pantomime. He saw Chocolat as an potential star dancer and mime, and was proven correct when his first show, “The Wedding of Chocolat” was a huge success. The show grew over the next five years, including teaming up with the clowns Pierantoni, Kestern and Geronimo Medrano.
During this period he met the love of his life, Marie Hecquet; she was married with two children, but divorced her husband in 1895 to start a new life with Rafael. He raised her children Eugene and Suzanne as their own and the family became circus performers. In 1895, Raoul Donval, director of the New Circus, formed a new duo, teaming Chocolat with a British clown, George Foottit. The two performed together for twenty years, popularizing clown comedy, especially with the burlesque sketch William Tell. Both were very successful in forming a comic duet. Unfortunately this comedy relied heavily on “comedic slaps”, making Chocolat a character consistent with the imagery and prejudices of that time; a character that gradually becomes the stereotype of the Negro scapegoat: silly, childish and friendly. Chocolat, however, fought the stereotype by constantly diversifying his skills and careful observation of the skits shows a character not confined to the roles of the subject. The phrase “je suis Chocolat”, meaning “I am deceived”, was popularized by the dialogues in their sketches, introduced by the duo in 1901.