Including Alterity

by Emily Mendelsohn

in Diversity & Inclusion

Mendelsohn_headshot(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

In writing about the word “inclusion”, I wonder if it implies a defined and binary territory. Either I am at the party, or I am left out. In my own experience as a director in an exchange between East Africa/US artists, I am wary of my impulse to include others in my party; and equally wary of the impulse to want to be included. Who owns the center, and what is its relation to alterity? For the past five years, we have used the process of developing plays to explore joint aesthetic and invite our communities to examine how we tell stories about trauma and difference. We developed Deborah Asiimwe’s critique of the foreign aid industry, Cooking Oil, through residencies in Kigali, Kampala, and Los Angeles. This November, we will partner with New Orleans-based ArtSpot Productions on Erik Ehn’s contemplation of the prayerlife of a genocide perpetrator in Rwanda, Maria Kizito. Since we (a core international group of performers, designers, producer, playwright, and myself) have been moving our residencies to different cities – Kigali, Kampala, Los Angeles, New York and now New Orleans – and working with new artists in each city, we are constantly having to redraw our own relationship to difference in the work. Inclusion becomes a commitment to negotiation.

It feels important to say that our East African/US collaboration is not equitable. What I feel proud of is that we continue engaging each other and the work through negotiations of power caught up in colonial histories, global economies, political, cultural and aesthetic difference, and the power dynamics in a hierarchical theater structure. I’d say we’re both looking to find ways to access presence and also to break stereotypes of “Africa” and “West”; to embody an interdependent world drawing on our many respective materials, performance practices, histories. It’s messy and involves misunderstanding, productive and unproductive, funny or heated, frustrating and endearing.

An example of what this negotiation looks like in process – our upcoming show deconstructs Catholic forms of prayer. Ehn, a Catholic American playwright, used the Catholic Office of the Hours as an entry point to contemplate the thoughts and actions of Rwandan Benedictine nuns who participated in a massacre. In our performance practice, we are participating in Ehn’s deconstruction of these rituals. Using strategies in Catholic formal prayer – stylized gesture, singing, proclaiming text – but replacing the usual gestures or melodies with our own physicalized acts of remembrance and empathy. We pull from our personal rhythms, and the variances in Catholic services in Rwanda, Uganda and the US. The Catholic-ness of the prayer becomes a thing that contains difference, as opposed (/in addition) to a dividing line. In the room, collaborators, both Ugandan and American, have their own distinct relationships to Catholicism, but for the purposes of this project, we agree on it as a way in; to meet in imagining our own capacity for violence, and trying to tell stories of violence in a personal way.

It’s really an exciting time to be working in both Rwanda and Uganda (two very different countries). In both, there are masters of craft and a burgeoning artistic movement. Artists are building thoughtful and beautiful reflections on contemporary identity that draw on multiple inherited artforms and histories. They are part of a sharp intellectual community continuing to invent Rwandan and Ugandan independence (or what writer/performer Herve Kimenyi, in a piece conceived by Carole Karemera, terms -  in(ter)dependence) drawing on their own particular values. Recent opening up of regional borders and increased avenues of support from European organizations and programs like Sundance East Africa Institute, have added to the sense of momentum and of regional, as well as national, project. In thinking of inclusion through the lens of a global stage, I wonder when does a project of including more voices in the mainstream reinforce monoculture? What are the structures of support needed to let multiple artistic centers develop in their own way here inside the US? As if the party is still being invented. Not only in/for East Africa, but for us all. If I am not ready, I might miss something. Something beautiful.

Emily Mendelsohn is an American theater director. With an exchange of artists from East Africa and the US, she has directed: Maria Kizito (reading at Uganda’s National Theatre, Soulographie NYC) and Deborah Asiimwe’s Cooking Oil (Kigali, Kampala, and Los Angeles). She has directed and dramaturged international exchange projects in the US, Lithuania, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. She participated for 5 years in an arts and social change exchange in Rwanda and Uganda led by Erik Ehn. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Uganda and holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts.