A TCG Global Connections In the Lab grant supported long time Kampala-based collaborators Tonny Muwangala, Esther Tebandeke, and Allen Kagusuru and (NY-based) I to travel to New Orleans for a three week residency with ArtSpot Productions. This was our third residency to develop Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito, and our first to partner with ArtSpot. Maria Kizito follows the prayerlife of a real-life nun who participated in a massacre at her convent during the Rwandan genocide, mediated by a white American nun who attends her trial in Belgium. We had a six performance run in New Orleans and presented video of the production and conversation at Uganda’s first Kampala International Theatre Festival. This post responds to some of the questions raised at KITF.
What characterizes Ugandan and American performance?
In both Uganda and the U.S., artists dedicate their soul to storytelling, while struggling for the resources to support themselves and their work. My work as director has been less importing a style, and more pointing out when our work feels honest. Our exchange has been less focused on fusing particular forms, and more about negotiating the pursuit of multiple personal aesthetics in shared efforts to embody historical memory (although this articulation of personal entry point is in itself a reflection of American values). We have been trying to find words and practices for moving images through the body and staging interdependence. Tonny, Esther, and Allen have contributed a virtuosity and discipline in building collective presence. From them I’ve learned the importance of a proper greeting, of tempering my planned schedule with the rhythm of life in the room. The thing I’ve brought to the table the last five years is my own search for voice, and if we’ve found a voice in our work, it’s something that we’ve found together.
What is genocide?
I think in dealing with perpetration of mass violence, there is an impulse to want some reasoning that makes an ordinary good person’s slide into atrocity relatable. Esther Tebandeke expresses this as she talks about the play’s quoting of Maria’s denial and justification of her actions in trial and witness testimony - without imagining a moment for Maria “to explain why she did what she did.” We want the journey into genocide explained so the distance between it and us is clear. But what makes Maria relatable is not the distance between her and her cruel actions, but that she knowingly and willingly provided gasoline to burn 300-500 people hiding in a garage; she wanted to show soldiers where her Sisters’ families hid in the ceiling. Her inability to see the cruelty in her choices inside of systems that promote cruelty is so painfully relatable. I see the text as looking at how genocide thinks itself. Not as executing evil, but as organized, controlled, in love with clarity, and projecting fear and repulsion on to an Other; the desire to be the storm and not the thing susceptible to the storm.
Why is there a white character mediating the play?
Maria Kizito is written (and directed) by a white American artist; and the text acknowledges and critiques a white gaze through the character of Theresa. As opposed to a gaze that assumes objectivity and renders itself invisible, Theresa sees and is seen. She names the motes in a Western eye: the global racism that enabled the West’s inaction during the genocide, the exaggerated moral superiority that tries mid-level genocidaire nuns in Belgium without trying Belgium for their role in polarizing Hutu and Tutsi during colonization. And, what I find most moving, Theresa leaves. In a play that hangs a collaged inner landscape on the chronology of a massacre, Theresa is set up as a guide, moving through witness with a clear character arc. She reaches an emotional center with Maria. She learns that genocide’s thinking is relatable and it is executed by global economic and political systems that implicate her. She doesn’t transcend these systems. She doesn’t have a cathartic release. She simply leaves “elbows in, above the rain. Eating.” Her lack of consequence to the play’s world renders her a conceit. As is, perhaps, her seeing of Maria. The last image of the play is voiced by survivors. The last word of the play is a word that can’t be said. The potential for genocide is in us, all of us, and the particular experience of this genocide belongs to those who lived it.
What were our strategies for representing violence?
Prompted by the text and stage directions, scenic designer Jeff Becker and I wanted to create a filter that muted the spectacle of genocide, sliding sideways into the human choices in its midst. A stage direction “The sun burns out” became pouring a bag of rice over a light bulb until the stage went dark. It’s such a silly image next to the horror it points at: 7,000 dead. Hopefully the failure of these visceral metaphors to represent the genocide created the space for an audience to try to see with us. Hopefully, the intimate, handmade vantage point made other intimate images stand out: the nuns laughing at people seeking shelter from behind locked windows. The broken trust and relationships that were particularly revealed in the Rwandan genocide, purposefully designed for neighbors to kill neighbors, family to kill family. Sean La Rocca’s music raised the stakes by placing this human scaled world into a vast, lonely musical frame. He described it as music that “searches, that doesn’t resolve, that wanders around and asks a question at the end of itself.”
A question at the end of myself…
Reading testimony reports while staying at Sovu several years ago, I fail to sleep. Then I have an image of a small bird under the bed. Not to turn away from the difficult histories that continue to inform our world, but how to be present in our shared precarity…
Emily Mendelsohn is an American theater director. With an exchange of artists from East Africa and the US, she has directed: Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito (ArtSpot Productions, New Orleans; and at La MaMa NYC as part of Soulographie) 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.