(Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | A Market in Pointe Noire, Congo)
We left Pointe Noire in heavy traffic, anxious to get beyond an imagined threshold where the choking smell of garbage, burning tires, and car exhaust would cease to exist. Traveling with Alain, Jean Leopold, and Raoul (all three men, Bantu and physically disabled) and also with our very talented friend and actress from the L’Arche de Ngoujel theatre group, Nicole, we set off in our van-taxi to perform Alain’s play throughout the region at the heart of the Pygmy and Bantu conflict. Our yellow and blue van-taxi tumbled along severely rutted dirt roads for hours as we traversed the Congolese jungle. The fine red dirt rushed in through the busted windows of our van, making our mouths taste chalky and bitter. Our faces and forearms gradually changed from fair-skinned to a surreal orange, making us look like poorly done up Wild West stage actors. We shielded our faces from the dust like bandits and smiled at one another with our eyes.
As the days passed, we spent short amounts of time in a handful of towns and villages, but chose two particular locales to set up camp long enough to workshop the play. Creating the play with Pygmies and Bantus together seemed totally daunting, but as it turned out, the first village where we attempted this, Indo, it was wildly successful.
Within ten minutes of getting half the village spectating and half performing, the whole place was in a theatrical uproar. The women formed a chorus of sorts and were entering from behind a palm-thatched hut carrying baskets and bundles of firewood on their heads. Many performed with their infants strapped to their backs and one carried a small dog slung around her shoulders. They created an improvised chant based on the words in Alain’s script. Some of the men played Pygmy tribesmen and carried a large traditional hunting net as their prop. Others played Bantu soldiers and quickly found small, thick branches and convincingly brandished them as AK47’s. They were quite scary as these military characters and their menacing portrayal of the soldiers created intense vocal and physical reactions from the actors playing the Pygmies. The audience, in response, began shouting and gesturing wildly.
(Filming by Rachael Castell | Rehearsing Alain’s Play in Sibiti)
This electrically charged few minutes of spontaneous theatre was so remarkable and so sudden that I honestly just completely flipped out. I remember grabbing Aaron’s shoulder, jumping in the air with complete joy, and then bursting into tears. I simply could not believe that these impoverished people in rags were creating something so powerful and that they were so effortlessly and convincingly taking on the specific roles in Alain’s story. It was an astonishing revelation for me about the power of theatre. How many times had I said in the past: “theatre is universal.” Before this trip, artistic universality was my deep belief. To see this firsthand alongside the poorest people in the world is something I will never forget. It was truly amazing.
Charged up from this miraculous moment, we left town a day later with a growing sense of confidence and eagerness to continue work on the play. Perhaps what we had set out to do could, in fact, become a reality.
Kate Sutton-Johnson specializes in environmental, exhibit, and stage design for both live events and permanent installations. Winner of the 2007 Ivey Award for Emerging Artist, she has worked throughout the United States with top regional theatres, museums, and commercial clients. Her expertise in creating theatrical spaces gives her unique insight into audience experience and the way in which immersive, visceral environments enhance storytelling. Regional theatre credits include designs for the 5th Avenue Theatre (WA); Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (MN), the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IN); the Children’s Theatre Company (MN); Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts (MN); Theatre Latte Da (MN); Guthrie Theater (MN); Weston Playhouse (VT); Mixed Blood Theatre Company (MN); Park Square Theatre (MN); Stages Theatre Company (MN); Florida Stage (FL) and the Riverside Theatre (FL) among others. Additionally, Kate has taught design as a guest instructor at a number of colleges and universities including the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, Augsburg College, and Macalester College. Kate grew up in Richmond, Virginia and went on to study set design at the North Carolina School of the Arts where she graduated in 2002.
The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.