How do you begin the process of reconciliation when a million people have been murdered? The new show The Book of Life details one woman’s attempt to reach out to victims and perpetrators alike following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The production is calm, reasoned and dignified, but one comes away knowing that Odile “Kiki” Gakire Katese is a steel magnolia in her efforts to build those bridges. Katese created The Book of Life with Canadian Ross Manson. She performs, and Manson directs.
While Katese is Rwandan, she grew up in the Congo where her family had fled as political exiles. Now living in Rwanda, she is a playwright, director, cultural advocate and humanitarian. In 2004, she founded Ingoma Nshya (New Power), Rwanda’s first all-woman drum ensemble, and in a clever entrepreneurial move, established the ice cream shop Sweet Dreams to help fund the group. Whether related to a genocide victim or to a perpetrator, all are welcome to Ingoma Nshya. The point is that these women have come together to partake in the healing process. Recordings of the ensemble’s tuneful and rhythmic a cappella singing, with music composed by Mutangana Moise, punctuates the narrative throughout.
During the genocide, Katese’s father’s family was wiped out which left a big hole in the family tree. Over time, it became very important for Katese to remember, not only these lost family members, but every one of the murdered people. The tactic that Katese used to begin these remembrances was the collection of letters written by both victims and perpetrators, which she puts in a binder she calls The Book of Life. These letters can be addressed to anyone, living or dead, according to the choice of the writer. We heard from a girl asking her father why he had engaged in murder, and a boy apologizing to his dead younger brother for not protecting him better. The show is built around the reading of these letters. Each is accompanied by a small photograph that Katese puts up on the back scrim. When the audience enters the theatre, Katese is writing on a pad, crumpling papers she is not satisfied with. It turns out that she is penning her own letter, and the show ends with its reading.
Another component of The Book of Life is the fable about a world half covered in darkness and half in light, and how the animals who live in darkness attempt to get a piece of the sun. This story is told in sections, interpolated around the letter readings, with folk art images accompanying the story. The metaphor of coming together to solve a problem could not be clearer, but the animals also make mistakes, which should become object lessons. The script also includes such things as Katese giving us background information about how each letter came to be written, a description of the emotional difficulty in attending the yearly commemorations of the genocide, and her philosophical musings on life in general, all supplemented by hand-drawn illustrations. The translated lyrics of the songs are also projected, and each adds context to the narrative as a whole. Kristine White, who created the projection design with Sean Frey, is given a bow at the end for her manipulation of the images.
One very touching moment in The Book of Life is about grandfathers. Clearly Katese pines for the grandfather she never knew who was a victim of the genocide. She addresses this emptiness by asking the audience to draw a grandfather for her with the paper and pencil we were given when we entered the theatre. Katese chose one picture to keep, and the other drawings were randomly handed back to us. I was quite moved by the grandfather I received, which is posted below. On another note, the furniture and mats that comprise Kaitlin Hickey and Patrick Lavender’s simple set are authentically from Rwanda.
The Book of Life deals with horrific events and yet it is medium cool in its impact. Katese has a lovely, gracious manner and her words envelop us in warmth, but while I was certainly engaged in what she had to say, I was, at the same time, emotionally disengaged. I was also annoyed that the photographs of the letter writers were so small that I couldn’t make them out. Why weren’t they projected at the same time as they were hung on the back scrim by Katese? There were also some stumbles in Katese’s delivery, but then she has ninety minutes of text to get through.
In the final analysis, maybe the take-away message of this low-key The Book of Life is that peaceful reconciliation rests in calm hands, one letter at a time.
Canadian Stage, Volcano Productions, Why Not Theatre & The Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda, The Book of Life co-created by Odile Gakire Katese and Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson, the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Sept. 17 to 29, 2019.