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‘Undoing the Un-Doable’ in ‘The Book of Life’: Finding Healing Amidst Genocide Through Theater

ArtsEmerson's "The Book of Life" ran at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre from Nov. 18-22.
ArtsEmerson's "The Book of Life" ran at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre from Nov. 18-22. By Courtesy of J.L. Preece
By Elyse G. Martin-Smith, Contributing Writer

“May we live together to never die like this again,” said playwright and lead performer Odile Gakire (Kiki) Katese in ArtsEmerson’s production of “The Book of Life” on Oct. 18. The co-production between Volcano Theatre and the Woman’s Cultural Centre infuses energy into a timely subject through an innovative multimedia performance, effectively transforming the theater into a space for collective healing and remembrance. Co-created and directed by Ross Manson, “The Book of Life” serves as a poignant reminder of the profoundly harmful impact of the Rwandan genocide and the enduring resilience of the Rwandan people in the face of immense tragedy.

The Rwandan genocide was a period of mass ethnic violence in 1994, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Over approximately 100 days, the Hutu ethnic majority orchestrated a systematic campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority, fueled by long-standing ethnic tensions and political strife. The genocide’s impact is the inspiration for this powerful work that cannot be encapsulated in theater alone. “The Book of Life” provides moments of direct experience, education, and personal reflection to envision a more unified and peaceful future.

Katese makes the sensitive material accessible to all ages by seamlessly interweaving an African folktale about Grandmother Spider, letters from survivors, and inquisitive personal questions. The joyous drumming of Ingoma Nsya, Rwanda’s first women’s drumming ensemble, fills the stage with smiles and laughter. The group is comprised of both survivors of the genocide and relatives of Hutu perpetrators, facilitating the unity and healed community they envision for the country as a whole. The drummers wear bright blue dresses and rainbow braids, creating an embodied performance that blends music and movement, which adds a sense of authenticity and empowerment. This tapestry of joy and pain, light and darkness, delves into the complexities of humanity in a journey towards healing after mass violence, which balances levity with the gravity of the topic.

However, this same juxtaposition of mundane and uncomplicated stories with accounts of extreme violence occasionally creates a stark contrast that seems overly simplistic and disengaging. The minimalist set design by Patrick Lavender accentuates this effect. Nonetheless, the production finds redemption in the evocative projections by Sean Frey and Kristine White, which contributes to the dynamic liveliness of the production. This production serves as one of many necessary reparatory initiatives, recognizing that its breadth cannot stand alone in addressing the loss caused by genocide.

During the show, Katese facilitates unique elements of audience interaction, encouraging the audience to participate in the storytelling. In response to the destruction of familial ties that occurred during the genocide, Katese asks every member of the audience to draw a grandfather figure that is later projected during the show along with drawings from past shows. This demonstrates that this show lives beyond the stage and cultivates a family tree and network out of the harmful event, bringing back lost and forgotten histories. The artists empower the audience to take a grandfather illustration home with them in hopes of continuing the conversation outside the theater. This small action works to “undo” history by reimagining the past while successfully bridging the gap between stage and reality. In the hands of a stranger, ancestors come alive once more. The lasting and unique memento crafted ensures the show's enduring legacy, invoking this rewritten past into the present and future.

“The Book of Life” transcends traditional theatrical boundaries, becoming a vehicle for both personal and communal healing. By confronting the legacy of the Rwandan genocide with creativity and compassion, Kiki Katese and her collaborators offer a powerful testimony to the perseverance of the human spirit and the potential for reconciliation and understanding, even in the aftermath of the darkest chapters of history.

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