Honoring Odile Gakire Katese

by Marcy Arlin

in Global Citizenship

Post image for Honoring Odile Gakire Katese

“You unfurl the wings of time and to both tips you tie all the threads that weave my name. You take a handful of the earth that covers me and infuse each speck with a breath of eternity…Every morning, I get up at dawn I search for you in the thick cotton fog. I turn every ray of sun upside down. Take my hand and let me pull you out of the dark abyss where you fall a little more every day. Yes, take my hand now.”
- Odile Gakire Katese, from Ngwino Ubeho (Come and Be Alive): translation by Chantal Bilodeau

We in New York City were fortunate to have the chance to meet Odile Gakire Katese, a remarkable theatre practitioner from Rwanda. Odile, or Kiki as she likes to be called, arrived on October 11th to receive the very first League of Professional Theatre Women’s Gilder/ Coigney International Theatre Award. This award was initiated by the League’s International Committee (of which I am a member) to honor an often unrecognized woman outside of the United States who has made not only great contributions to theatre, but to the cause of women in the arts and society.

Twenty women were nominated from sixteen nations, and all have done amazing work. You can find all their names, histories and artistic statements on the League’s website (PDF).

The Award is named after two women who have, in my and many others’ opinions, created American involvement in the world of international theatre. The International Theatre Institute is a direct result of Rosamund Gilder and Martha Coigney’s dedication to creating a global community of theatre artists.

Odile Gakire Katese, as she herself describes it, is a woman of firsts. She is a Rwandan playwright, director, poet, musician, actor and humanitarian. Among her many accomplishments are the first women’s drumming company Ingoma Nshya (Women’s Initiative) in Rwanda, the first professional contemporary dance company, and the first coop ice cream store with Blue Marble Ice Cream, and the first recipient of the League’s award.

Kiki is a grand person with a warm, generous, insightful outlook on life. She has a vision that is a long one, of how theatre and art will heal and inspire her compatriots.

One amazing, and extremely important, thing about Kiki’s work in post-genocide Rwanda is the inclusion in the drumming group, the theatre pieces, the ice cream store, the workshops, of both Tutsis and Hutus, victims, widows, orphans, and perpetrators. For them, they are all Rwandans, with the same language, music, dance, and culture.

So what has Kiki been doing in New York? The International Committee has been busy keeping her occupied with events and meetings. Most importantly, Kiki received the award in the splendor of the French Cultural Center on Fifth Avenue. Brief and moving speeches were given by those theatre folks who have known Kiki for a while: Philip Himberg from Sundance Institute Theatre Program, Martha Coigney, Frank Hentschker from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, Joanne Pottlitzer (who founded the International Committee at the League, and Ludovica Villar Hauser and Maxine Kern, who spearheaded the Award and worked so hard and brilliantly organizing Kiki’s time in NY. Just to keep things from getting too serious, there was a raffle to treats from Rwanda: tea, coffee and a basket!

I first met Odile when I and Ludovica Villar Hauser were rehearsing readings of two of her works, Ngwino Ubeho and The Book of Life presented this October 17 at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. We had two amazing actors, Taifa Harris and DeWanda Wise, who read the material with beauty and deep emotion. What I found great about this experience is that Odile’s work, like all good theatre, can be understood and appreciated on a global scale.

At the Martin E. Segal Theatre, thanks to the generosity and vision of Frank Hentschker, Director of the MESTC, the League held three sessions on the 17th. The first was called “Odile in Her Own Words”, interspersed with video and live readings of her work. The video included clips of her drumming group, performances of Ngwino Ubeho, which had some development at Sundance, and an intensely moving interview with a woman, Regina, who spoke about her sense of shame for her parents’ crimes, and how she was able to make peace with children of victims through the drumming group. One of the great horrors (among many) of the Rwandan genocide is that the perpetrators and the victims had been neighbors, friends, and even relatives. Kiki is tackling, through her theatre, work, how a society can possibly continue under such memories.

The second session was a panel that featured Odile and three of the International Award nominees: Dijana Milosevic from Serbia, Deborah Asiimwe from Uganda, and Gerda Stevenson, from Scotland. In answer to questions put by moderator Anne Cattaneo, Literary Manager of Lincoln Center Theatre, they spoke of the changing role of women in their countries and theatre, their own challenges (kids, war, sexism, colonialism, money, and time). They spoke of the origins of their work, which included creating a visible counterbalance to governmental propaganda and an honoring of family storytellers. Martha Coigney, also on this panel, spoke movingly about the early days of ITI and how in spite of the cold war and more current wars and catastrophes, theatre artists keep on talking and keep on creating.

Later that day, in an interview conducted by Eliza Bent of American Theatre, Kiki mentioned how when she visited the memorials, she cried and cried. During some rehearsals, and even performances, audiences cried. But then another phenomenon happened within Kiki and in the theatre performances began to occur: how the arts were about a coming together, of remembering, and of healing. The Book of Life is the beginning of a project to have hundreds of letters compiled, from the survivors to those who have died, telling their lost ones what they miss about them, how bad they feel, and how they are living now.

So what else have we seen of Odile? Organized by the Rwanda Missionto the United Nation and the League’s Joyce Maio, there was a cozy talk, coffee klatch, and dancing at the Café Bourbon, a Rwandan-run coffee house on west 14th Street.

A reading of The Book of Life at the Lark Play Development Center featured more of the letters Odile has compiled. Directed by Ludovica, it played to a full house, people who are ever more curious about what is happening in theatre in Rwanda. It seems that the American audience is developing what Rosamund Gilder and Martha Coigney envisioned: a truly global theatrical sensibility.

More is planned–meetings at the McCarter theatre, with the Rwandan embassy, and a final farewell dinner hosted by Leaguer’s Sandra Gorney. Sweet Dreams, by award-winning documentarians Lisa and Rob Fruchtman, will be released next spring. The film, trailers of which were shown at the NYC events, is inspired by the unique visions of Odile Gakire Katese (Kiki), and features the drumming troupe, ice cream shop, and interviews with Kiki.

And to conclude, BRAVA and a thank you to the Rwandan Mission to the United Nations, Café Bourbon, NYU, the Lark, Sundance Theatre Institute, the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, the French Alliance and, most especially, all the amazing theatre women of the International Committee of the League of Professional Theatre Women, and other League members, who worked so hard to make these events special. They hosted, fed, schlepped, wrote PR and speeches, inscribed, organized, and liaisoned with countless supporters: Marcy Arlin, Linda Chapman, Catherine Coray, Orietta Crispino, Cheryl L. Davis, Joan D. Firestone, Carol Flemming, Michelle Haines, Elizabeth Hess, Katrin Hilbe, Pamela Golinski, Maxine Kern, Francoise Kourilsky, Roberta Levitow, Shellen Lubin, Carol Mack, Joyce Maio, Kristin Marting, DeVida Jenkins McKevitt, Joanne Pottlitzer, Elsa Rael, Lisa Rothe,  Gaby Schafer, Harriet Slaughter, Melanie Sutherland, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, Ariane Zaytzeff, and Lanie Zipoy.

Marcy Arlin is a freelance director and Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. A member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. Current projects: Playwrights of Eastern Europe: Women Write the New; East/West/East: a binational, Czech/Vietnamese/English project with Divadlo Feste/Czech Republic and Firehouse Theatre/Richmond, Virginia. Directing venues include: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, Vineyard, Oddfellows, Artheatre/Koln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania/Cluf. Created Journey Theatre, working with survivors of war and torture. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Lecturer in theatre at CUNY; taught workshops on community-based theatre at Yale, University of Chicago, Brown, and NYU.