Reality Theater

For artists working in Rwanda, the truth is terrible and worth telling


| Utne Reader May / June 2007


If you wanted to test the hypothesis that art has the power to heal the pain of genocide, you would be hard pressed to find a more apt laboratory than Rwanda, where more than a million people were slaughtered between 1990 and 1994; where the teaching of history has been suspended; and where the government is trying to forge a new national identity by eliminating the tribal names Hutu and Tutsi from the national memory.

Erik Ehn, dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, has been conducting just such an experiment for the past four years, and the answer, he is finding, is . . . complicated.

'Theater is not very good therapy,' Ehn acknowledges. 'But I do believe in the value of art, and that art can transform reality. In Rwanda, you've got people who might have to buy bread from the man who raped their daughter, or sit next to someone in church who killed their father. That's their reality.'

Exploring that reality, both as human beings and as artists, is the purpose of 'Arts in the One World,' a conference Ehn has organized at Cal Arts in January for the past two years, in conjunction with the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, a Rwandan nonprofit organization. This year's conference drew almost 100 theater artists, academics, independent scholars, and survivors. The Santa Clarita Valley daily newspaper the Signal (Jan. 28, 2007) reports that human rights activist Claudia Bernardi kicked off one panel discussion by describing the pain genocide victims must live with:

'It's not possible to make [genocide] better. For this kind of horror there is no amendment. But yes, there is a future. Of course one continues to live with the scar.'

A belief that art, particularly theater, can help heal the wounds of political upheaval is a common one, says Ehn, but it's not his primary motivation as a theater artist. Ehn's beliefs are a bit more basic: that people need safe places to tell their stories, even if the stories themselves aren't safe, and that civilization depends upon artists to provide those places.