Congo Project: Where We Started

by Kate Sutton-Johnson

in Global Connections

Post image for Congo Project: Where We Started

(Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Women Villagers of Sibiti)

I’m still reeling a bit from my experience in Africa.  In some ways, it was predictable and neatly wrapped in my Western stereotypes of African culture, art, economics, and politics.  Like a plastic red View Finder, the images clicked, clicked, clicked.  There were dusty bare feet kicking up loose dirt as they shuffled and pounded to choruses of voices and drumming.  There were beautiful handicrafts dotting the sidewalks.  There were mosaics of jewel-toned African fabrics hugging women’s curving figures as they sashayed in tight-fitting skirts through the congested markets.  There were green jungles always in the distance, each and every leaf near the roadside coated in a contrasting layer of vibrant red dirt kicked up from the rutted path.  There were children in rags with leathery feet who peered solemnly out of palm frond huts.  There were smarmy policemen masked behind aviators and toothy grins demanding bribes.

In other ways, however, Africa was entirely unpredictable.  Filled with moments exemplifying passion and joy and others depressingly wrought with apathy hard to describe, it was uplifting and maddening; contrary at every turn.  Since I’ve been back in Minneapolis, everyone I run into asks excitedly, “Hey!!  How was Africa?!”  And, as my focus shifts to memories, I respond to their open faces and raised eyebrows with an indulgent, faraway look.  Several moments pass and I can’t seem to shake this long, glazed stare as I search for a neat little sound bite, something to sum it all up for them and make it seem as real to them as it is to me.  But I can’t seem to make a bridge from Africa to the person standing there.  My bridge is more like a tunnel, meandering into dark, tangential passageways, with steep drops, corkscrews, and bumpy rutted terrain.  So far the sound bite eludes me.  Writing about Africa, however, has been a great exercise in naming my feelings and this is the first of several chapters I’ll post about my experiences.

We’ll start with what in the world I was doing…

As part of TCG’s Global Connections program, I spent the better part of the month of August in Congo-Brazzaville with my two American collaborators, Jeanne Calvit (Artistic Director of Interact Theatre) and Aaron Gabriel (Composer of Interact Theatre) as well as London-based filmmaker, Rachael Castell, and a small group of Congolese theatre artists/musicians.  The journey was bookended by time spent in the city of Pointe-Noire where our Congolese friends live, and the heart of our trip was spent in rural parts of the country in small villages traveling via a van-taxi.

The Congo Team | Pictured in Pointe Noire | Back row from left to right: Raoul, Aaron Gabriel, Leo Ngoulou, Jeanne Calvit, Nicole Kissambou, Jean Leopold Ngoulou | Front row from L to R: Alain Ngono, Rachael Castell, Kate Sutton-Johnson

In Pointe-Noire, we met with members of the theatre troupe L’Arche de Ngoujel, a group of young, energetic performers.  They are organized and led by our friend and principle collaborator, Jean Leopold Ngoulou, who created this theatre group in the early 2000’s.  The members divide their time working at three theatre disciplines: Dramatic Performance (mostly melodramas and comedies, performed in both French and English–they are all very keen to do European-style theatre and to learn the English language), Dance (mostly hip hop; big dance troupes doing synchronized choreography to American pop music), and Storytelling (the telling of local stories, accompanied by musicians using traditional instruments and drums.)

Photo by Rachael Castell | Members of L’Arche de Ngoujel | Jean Leopold Ngoulou pictured on far right

Also in Pointe-Noire, we had the opportunity to spend time with members of L’Association Pour Le Bien-Etre Des Personnes Handicapees Au Congo (an association of working artists with disabilities.)  These artists were mostly making handicrafts: weaving plastic garbage bags into beautiful items like purses and dolls, crocheting netted clothing, etc.  Some of them were also amazing musicians and singers.  Spending time with them was a huge highlight of our time in the city.

Photo by Rachael Castell | Members of L’Association Pour Le Bien-Etre Des Personnes Handicapees Au Congo | Kate Sutton-Johnson pictured on far right

One of our primary Congolese collaborators, Alain Ngono, a man with a severe physical disability, is involved in both the disability organization and the theatre activities with L’Arche de Ngoujel.  When Jeanne and Aaron began this project two years ago and made their first trip to Congo, they met Alain.  As he approached them for the first time, Jeanne recalls that he crawled on his hands through a mound of garbage smiling from ear to ear.  They were struck by his resilient spirit, his joy for life, and, as they were to discover, his profound musical abilities.  The more they learned about Alain and his life story, the more they were amazed, and Jeanne ultimately asked him if he would become the storyteller for a future collaborative theatre project in Congo.  He readily agreed and spent this past year writing a play.  In his story, as his amazing life experiences unfold, so does the dramatic story of two oppressed groups in Congolese society.

Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Alain Ngono and Jeanne Calvit

 It’s important to describe what I learned about these two groups in some detail, as this education was a huge part of this exploratory project and became the focus of the theatre piece that we created on the journey:

The first group is Alain’s community: the huge number of citizens with disabilities often acquired from either polio or a vaccine/injection received in early childhood.  In Congo, people with disabilities are completely shunned from normal life.  Mental disability isn’t publicly acknowledged at all and people with physical disabilities are often hidden away their entire lives.

Photo by Rachael Castell | Alain Ngono and Mes

The second group is the Pygmy people, the indigenous people of the region and thought by many to hold the oldest DNA in the world.  For centuries they have lived as hunter gatherers in the secluded regions of the Congo rainforest.  In the last fifty years, however, this lifestyle has entirely eroded because of logging, mining, and other industries that have moved into the region.  They are now land locked in small areas and can no longer move in the migratory patterns that sustained their ability to live off the forest.  Furthermore, the Pygmies are severely discriminated against, viewed as non-human by the dominant racial group of the region, the Bantu.  Of course, not all the Bantu ascribe to this intense racism, but there’s no doubt that the Pygmies are widely discriminated against.  They now work as field hands on land managed by Bantu chiefs.  For their long days of labor their small villages make a penance, barely enough for them to survive.  It seems they’ve lost much of their traditional practices as a culture: their traditional ways of dressing, their instruments, their harmonious way of living with the forest and drawing out its bountiful foods and plants with medicinal properties.

Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Mama Pauline and Infant Villager in Sibiti

Alain’s story begins in the late 90’s, when he was displaced like hundreds of thousands of other Congolese people during the country’s civil war, known as Guerre du 5 juin (War of 5 June.)  It was a horrific time for the country and nearly everyone we spoke to about this violent era seemed quite traumatized by their memories of it.  Alain was forced to flee his town and found himself utterly stranded in dense forest for several days.  His wheelchair was useless to him and he couldn’t find food.  When he’d nearly lost hope, Pygmy villagers discovered him and then decided to take care of him, hiding him for the duration of the war.

Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Alain Ngono in Sibiti

Alain was very moved by their compassion for a Bantu man, considering the way in which the Bantu often disgrace and repress the Pygmy.  As time passed and he lived with the Pygmy, he grew to respect their spirituality and deep understanding of the natural world.  He learned their music and decided to dedicate his life to creating better relationships between the Bantu and Pygmy cultures through music and the arts.

Alain’s play essentially tells this story.  It is told in a highly poetic, mythical style, with many similarities to a traditional Greek tragedy.  As we dug into Alain’s play, we knew we could easily use the conventions of a Greek style chorus to pull large groups of performers into the telling of Alain’s journey during the war.

And so, we left the city and ventured into the equatorial rain forest to make theatre with Pygmies and Bantus…..noooo problem…..

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.