A ragged teenage girl selling cooking oil by the roadside in a “developing” country asks do you see me? A teenage girl dreaming of her law school graduation asks do you see me? A teenage girl selling oil meant to be given freely to the people of her struggling village asks do you see me? This question lies at the center of Cooking Oil, a new play and international collaboration (written by Deborah Asiimwe, directed by Emily Mendelsohn) exploring complex justice and the power dynamics embedded in the contemporary foreign aid industry.
Do you see me? The question reminds me of Lear in the wilderness with an old blind man. Are you here with me? Are you human with me? The trick is not simply that global inequality disappear. The trick includes how to keep inequality from distracting us from the ability to see … humanity? injustice? human being in particular? What makes us choose to look away? How do we help each other become more human?
Being asked to see or to be seen is a frightening thing. It is an invitation to be exposed, to be examined and to be judged. At a very human level, we have created a world of looking but not “seeing”. Everyday, we move from one place to another, and in our movements, we encounter people, we encounter situations, and we find ourselves either looking away or looking but not really seeing. We avoid eye contact with those we don’t know, we are afraid to see, and to be seen. Even when we are compelled to “see”, it is likely that we will do so from a “safe” standpoint so as to preserve ourselves from the real commitment of “seeing”. Maria in Cooking Oil asks us this question at different moments of her life, “Do you see me?” What does it feel like to be looked at, but not really seen?
We’ve been working on this play for some years, and working on ways of working together for some years more. We met as graduate students at CalArts in 2006; developed work together; traveled together on Erik Ehn’s trips to East Africa studying art’s capacity to participate in acts of healing and developing pedagogical models based on mutuality. The Cooking Oil project comes out of this network and thinking. A group of artists – associated with CalArts in LA, Ishyo Art Center in Kigali, Rwanda, and Uganda’s National Theater in Kampala – breathing, listening, creating together : do you see me? Do you see me?
We’ve workshopped the piece with two-week intensives every year – this will be the fourth year and our first time to bring the work to the US. Time has given us space to settle into honesty; to assess our work; to fundraise and set up systems for engagement, guided firmly by producer Miranda Wright. In looking at ways to stage the question, we create an obstacle for literal representation, and the work has become more visually spare, more focused on aural entry points – layered music, text, breath to create world. Together we teach our ears to “see” by intensely listening to one another with compassion, to hear what is said and unsaid, we teach our bodies to “see” by intensely feeling the unspoken, that which can only be communicated by a movement, a gesture, a facial expression, a breath. We have been creating spaces of “seeing” not only with our eyes, but also with our entire being. Sometimes, with three languages spoken in the rehearsal room, “seeing” becomes less of a choice but an obligation. We feel uncomfortable “seeing” someone struggling to express themselves in the spoken language, our bodies shift uncomfortably because they are reminding us the need to “see” and to be “seen” sometimes in our most uncomfortable elements.
Characters wander in and out of each other’s dreams, and earnestly negotiate a shared reality. The bodies through which these stories/words move remain present. The audience and performers complete a circle together. Production designer Shannon Scrofano and costume designer Stella Atal work with varied artifacts – empty cans donated from the World Food Programme (WFP), bark cloth fabric, T-shirts donated to Africa and sold at market, a computer, cassava. Our world is not the intersection of static cultures, but an invocation built out of materials in tension: traditional/modern, Western/African, home-made/manufactured, individual/collective. Objects/artifacts/practices/songs/stories/languages all serve as tools to make Maria – her struggles, her dreams, her – visible.
I would say that ours is a process of construction and deconstruction and construction and deconstruction and construction: and purposeful impulses, following intuition that translates into technique, finding language of what it is that we are creating, a room of collisions, of conceptualizing and of allowing our bodies to articulate what it is that we have conceptualized, of letting our bodies and what they have internalized be challenged, and be asked to shift again, and try something new, something different. He opens a bottle of soda and pours libations on the earth and explains he does not believe in pouring libations for his ancestors. Coming to what we believe in – Augustine via Grotowski – as a process, not so much of reasoning, but of removing obstacle. Do you see me? It can take so long to allow myself to be seen.
The style within which the text is written is informed by an art of storytelling in the Kinyankore culture where the storyteller invites her/his listeners on a journey with her/him. It is an invitation to participate, to directly experience with the person leading the journey. The voice of the storyteller may be singular, but the act of invitation turns the singular voice into a communal and a collective one. The story becomes a shared dream and or reality, it becomes communally owned, the storyteller and the listener become one, the space of separation gets blurred, together you “see”, together you are “seen”.
This search for mutual seeing is not the tool for change. It is the change. At its best, the project strives to perform a tiny interruption of patronizing ways of thinking about aid, and the hope becomes that out of interruption might follow questions, new relationships, the work of reorienting. How do we imagine change in a world that includes us?
*Cooking Oil will perform at the ATX/ Arts+Innovation Complex Warehouse June 6-9, 2013 presented by Los Angeles Performance Practice in association with the CalArts Center for New Performance, and supported in part by the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs. Dialogues organized by Rosalind Helfand will follow performances. www.cookingoilplay.com
Deborah Asiimwe is a playwright, producer and performer from Uganda. Her plays have received productions and readings in the US and East Africa. Asiimwe received her MFA in Writing for Performance from CalArts and was the overall winner of the 2010 BBC World Service African Performance playwriting competition.
Emily Mendelsohn is an LA/NY-based director. Recent work includes a Ugandan/American production of Maria Kizito (Erik Ehn) for Soulographie: Our Genocides, and the American premiere of Children of Killers (Katori Hall). She received an MFA in Directing from CalArts, and a 2010 Fulbright Fellowship to Uganda.