Reality Theater

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.

‘I’m more interested in building trust between people, creating a space where mutual experience can be shared,’ says Ehn. At its core, the entire project of ‘reconciliation’ in Rwanda is about finding ways to get people who may hate each other, and who share a gruesome history, to talk truthfully about what happened there. For someone who believes in the necessity of art, say Ehn, the big question is: ‘Is your work powerful enough to confront the world at its worst?’

A similar impulse to test the healing power of theater drew Ananda Breed, a doctoral student at England’s University of Manchester, to Rwanda. Breed’s mission was to answer this question: ‘How is theater used as a tool for reconstruction and peace-building in post-genocide Rwanda?’ She published a partial answer in the article ‘Performing Reconciliation in Rwanda’ in Peace Review (Oct.-Dec. 2006), and is writing her doctoral thesis on the subject.

Like Ehn, Breed quickly discovered that getting people in Rwanda to share their stories about the genocide is more complicated than one might imagine. Though Rwanda has dozens of grassroots organizations that stage traditional dances, songs, and role-playing exercises based on the theme of reconciliation, several of them demonstrating how perpetrators and survivors can live together in peace, the country does not have a theater tradition in the Western sense. Rwanda does, however, have a history of using theater for political aims.

Touchier still, the Rwandan government’s most ambitious program for bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice and building national unity is a form of public truth-telling called gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha). Every week in Rwanda, people in villages all over the country gather to name the genocidal perpetrators in their midst, bear witness to their crimes, and determine a just punishment. Formally called Inkiko Gacaca, or gacaca courts, these citizen tribunals were created because, Breed explains, ‘after the genocide, there were only five judges and 50 lawyers left in the country, and they estimated that it was going to take more than 150 years to prosecute the more than 120,000 people who were imprisoned.’

All over Rwanda there are billboards that read Inkiko Gacaca: ukuri kurakiza (gacaca courts: truth heals). Which may true, but according to Breed it’s also true that any form of public telling can be used as evidence in a gacaca hearing. ‘In that case, theater as a tool for healing might give some momentary relief, but it could also be evidence for putting someone in prison for 25 years,’ she says. ‘Knowing this made me rethink the limits of what we can do as artists.’

Despite these limitations — and in part because of them — both Breed and Ehn intend to return to Rwanda this summer to continue their work. ‘The great thing about Rwanda is that it lets you fail magnificently every day,’ says Ehn. ‘What more could an artist want?’


Tad Simons is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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