Stage Door Review 2019

The Book of Life

Sunday, September 22, 2019


co-created by Odile Gakire Katese & Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson

Volcano, Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto

September 18-29, 2019

“To write a story is not to surrender to death”

It may seem impossible that a theatre piece about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 should send an urgent message about the necessity of hope, yet that is exactly what The Book of Life does. Co-created by Rwandan activist Odile Gakire Katese and Canadian Ross Manson and written and performed by Katese, The Book of Life is currently receiving its world premiere. Gentle and clear-eyed, Katese’s work is about healing after horror and while her focus may specifically be Rwanda, many people will find the wisdom of her observations applicable not only to other nations but to themselves.

During the Rwandan Civil War (1990-94) which became a struggle for power between the Hutu and the Tutsi groups, the Hutu planned and perpetrated the genocide of the Tutsi. In 1994 between 500,000 and one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed causing the death of about 70% of the Tutsi population. When the killing ended over one million people were charged with genocide, or one fifth of the remaining population. How a country can come back after such a massive scale of murder and such a massive burden of guilt is inconceivable to us. But how the war came about, how it ended and how the nation has survived are not the subject of Katese’s theatre piece. 

Instead, Katese’s focus is how to help survivors, perpetrators and friends and relatives of both cope with the past that still haunts them. Her solution is the creation of what she call The Book of Life. This is a collection of letters she encouraged killers to write to those they killed and from survivors to write to their dead friends and relatives. Her strategy is to force all those involved to express the feelings they have hidden and that have been eating away at them. A stationer told Katese that the genocide is a door she would not open. Katese encourages everyone to open that door and acknowledge the past.

Katese’s emphasis is on life, not death. She feels that through the letters she collects the lives of the victims are remembered and that remembering a life, even one that the writer took, rescues the victim from the obscurity of death. There is a Genocide Memorial in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, where the remains of 250,000 people are buried. But Katese who visits the memorial regularly finds it a memorial of death. her collections of letters she views as a memorial of life. 

While Katese’s focus may be the Rwandan genocide and her Book of Life, Katese expands her topic to ask questions about what it means to write such a letter to the dead, to allow oneself finally to express feelings that have been tightly locked up, to allow these feelings to be exposed and judged. For Katese such actions are all necessary to the process of healing. As she states, “To write a story is not to surrender to death”.

The Book of Life is not a play but rather a performance piece that is rather close to being an illustrated lecture. In a repeated pattern Katese tells us about herself, about her project, reads one of the letters and tells is in instalments the Navajo folktale “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun” for which she secured express permission from the Navajo storyteller Geri Keams to use in the show. (Katese, who has an amazingly diverse range of interests, at one point worked with storytellers in Utah.)

One might have thought that the vast store of African folktales would have something similar that Katese could use. But this particular story says exactly what Katese wants to say and linking the world of Rwanda to the Navajo only helps to universalize her message. 

In the story, beautifully told by Katese who acts the roles of all the animals involved, we learn that the world was once divided in half. One side had only sunlight, the other only darkness. All of the animals lived on the side with only darkness. The leader of the animals, a leopard, because leopards can see in the dark, thinks the situation is unsatisfactory and gathers all the animals to seek a solution. First the mole rat then the vulture volunteer to travel to the other side of the world and bring back a bit of sunlight, but both fail. Finally, old grandmother spider who recognizes the folly of the other two, sets about her own sensible plan, and though it takes a long, long time for the small ancient creature to complete it, she succeeds. 

The Navajo story clearly resonates with the feeling of Rwandans after the genocide of living in a world of complete darkness. The fact that an old woman succeeds links with Katese’s view of woman as central to the healing process. The fact that it takes a long time for the spider to succeed relates to people’s expectations of how long healing will take. The fact that the spider, unlike the mole rat and vulture, created a clay vessel to contain the sunlight, reflects Katese’s point that a creative act is needed to bring about healing.

The soundtrack to Katese’s show is by the first-ever Rwandan female drumming ensemble Ingoma Nshya, a group that Katese founded. It is a group that accepts all female Rwandans, whether Hutu or Tutsi, relatives of perpetrators or victims. They have found healing through creating music together and thus serve as a parallel to the letter collecting of Katese’s Book of Life.

During the 80-minute-long show, Katese reads seven of these letters, all impossibly difficult to listen to, especially those from killers to those they killed. And, as one understands, impossibly difficult for the writers to write. Yet, difficult as each letter may be, each one, as Katese sees it, preserves a life. 

We can see in the gentle, genial yet impassioned manner that Katese presents her show how she was able to convince so many Rwandans to contribute to her project. In the course of the show Katese persuades the audience to remember a grandfather by making a drawing, another encouragement to use art to commemorate an ancestor.

Throughout the show, the back wall of of Katese’s living-room-like set is illumined from behind with projections of exquisite cut paper designs by Kristine Hickey and Sean Frey manipulated by Kristine White that serve as illustrations to the Navajo tale or to the letters Katese reads. While not strictly necessary since the words of the story and letters are so powerful, the projections are so beautifully done that they form a fine visual complement to what Katese says.

Odile Gakire Katese is a remarkable woman bursting with positivity yet conscious of the darkness she works to overcome. Not only did she found the Ingoma Nshya, but she founded Rwanda’s first professional dance company, its first international festival of the arts and its first national festival of the arts. Any forum would be reason enough to meet this extraordinary person. The Book of Life provides through its focus on that project an opening for us to get to know this woman who has used art to bring a bit of the sun to people overwhelmed with darkness. We may think our own times are bleak, but they are hardly bleaker than the madness and horror that overtook an entire country. The Book of Life inspires us to believe that if Katese has seen a way to create means of healing after such a catastrophe, so can we within ourselves, within our country and within the world community.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Odile Gakire Katese in The Book of Life. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

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