Article of Ananda Breed
I observed theatre practitioner Frédérique Lecomte in the prisons of Burundi who conducted theatre workshops with prisoners on death row. Lecomte had the epiphany that participants of Hutu and Tutsi origin often try to ‘out suffer’ one another. Thus, she began staging theatrical competitions of suffering between historical narratives in conflict. From the observations in Burundi, I was able to observe how ethnicity was openly discussed in the reconciliation process and to explore varied theatrical techniques for audience and participant engagement for the purpose of promoting dialogue.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, I conducted theatre workshops with the Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in Bukavu and Kinshasa. Theatre practitioners whom were often ex-child soldiers or affected by war personally, rehearsed techniques including Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, and Playback Theatre.[i] Narrative was the essential ingredient to find common threads between one another’s stories. In a public performance staged for a widow’s association in Bukavu, the SFCG Theatre Coordinator Don Tshibanda, transitioned from personal stories using Playback Theatre to public interventions using Forum Theatre techniques. Unlike Rwanda where a semi-dictatorial government enforces tight control of civic life, the vast country of the Democratic Republic of Congo often suffers from lawlessness, or even worse, government acquiescence or participation in violence (such as looting and raping by the army). The difference in political and domestic spheres requires different theatrical responses.
The examples of Lecomte and SFCG demonstrate the role of the ‘outsider’ and international investment in the peacemaking process.[ii] Belgian theatre director Lecompte has been funded to work in Burundi by RCN Justice et Démocratie and SFCG works in partnership with UNHCR, but there are local applications to both projects integrating local companies and directors, as Tshibanda is Congolese. Although funded by international agencies, Lecomte does not direct narratives to fit tropes of reconciliation and justice, as may often be the directive of external funding sources. In an interview with Lecomte in 2005 she stated, ‘I don’t believe in forgiveness. In order to forgive, you have to become numb. It is disempowering and is a kind of desensitization. We need to hold onto our politics – what created the pain and suffering to redirect our ideas and to develop some kind of understanding.’[iii] In a follow up interview in 2012, Lecomte further complicated the term forgiveness with her own practice:
Forgiveness is a special word. I don’t like the word very much. I think forgiveness, in the case of trauma, can mask the problem because when you say I forgive you – it is like it didn’t happen or that you forget. It is important to forgive oneself but you can’t forget. I’m afraid that forgiveness hides the memory. That is why I think peace and reconciliation isn’t about forgiveness; it’s about memory. All we can do (as communities that have experienced conflict) is to put the memories of suffering together and then do something with that … theatre or art. But, forgiveness for me is propaganda. Forgiveness hides the problem. The memory is the problem – the trauma and the acting out of war. When you put the memory together with theatre and victims of conflict, it is a step before forgiveness. But, by doing this step you don’t need forgiveness to put the memory together. Memory is contradictory and it is the role of theatre to work with those contradictions.[iv]
In workshops with prisoners that are condemned to death (observed by author in Burundi 2005) Lecomte uses a technique that encourages individuals to tell the truth, but not through the usual demonstration of remorse and confession. In darkness, individuals repeat phrases such as ‘I was afraid when…’, then they improvise their own responses. Lecomte instructs individuals to change vocal inflection and volume as they repeat their responses until the room is filled with a cacophony of testimonies. Then, one by one, individuals come forward and repeat their phrases while being directed by Lecomte to laugh. There are moments in which the contrast between the phrase and the demonstration of laughter are particularly absurd concerning phrases that I witnessed such as, ‘I was afraid when I picked up the baby and bashed him against the wall’, ‘I was afraid when I went to sleep’, ‘I was afraid when I looked into the eyes of the woman I raped.’ Often, these moments went from high-pitched laughter to tears. Lecomte would yell out, ‘Laugh harder! Harder!’[v] She stated that a part of the technique was to use the laughter to unleash the inner control of emotions so that truth can emerge and to act the testimony – thus creating a physical distance between the actual reality of the event through the dramatic act as a claim to the suffering, ‘to make a distance between the suffering and the performance of the suffering. In this way it is therapeutic. I’m not sure catharsis is from the testimony, but does increase the distance between what one feels and what one wants to say to the audience. The person is able to then tell their testimony or story – not as one self, but commenting on oneself.’[vi] Lecomte describes the technique called ‘chorus form’ in more depth:
First, I ask the prisoners to speak softly about what they are afraid of, and what they have done, even if it is dark and horrific. Then, not to think about it, but to speak about it. Then, they are asked to speak loader. In the first step they open up about what they have done. The second step is for them to speak loader, not to tell others what they’ve done. But, everyone can hear what they’ve done. But, it is a trap – I don’t say you have to tell others what you have done. It is not like that. The third step is to ask people to speak one by one – loader and one by one – then to hear everyone that they have done. It is a progression so that people can hear and perhaps to have compassion about themselves and what others have done. Then, the fourth step, at the end of the third step we are at the point of theatre. In the fourth step, I can play with the testimonies as theatre. I can have them laugh about what the say. It is a direction that I give actors, to laugh, to sing, or to dance – but to jump into theatre. Then, we are sure we are doing theatre because we are laughing about things that we can’t laugh about. We are doing theatre. All the steps have different functions. The first step is to confirm their memory. The second step is to share a little bit of their memory. The third step is to act and the fourth step is to play with their memory. During this process, people are changing because they think in different ways about what they have done and about themselves. They can hear other people’s testimonies and put what they have done in relation to others – they open their hearts and minds.[vii]
However, the truth is not necessarily for justice or reconciliation, but rather for the individual to claim his or her own experience. In various cases, Lecomte takes artistic liberty to adapt these narratives into public performances. Lecomte states:
…the common ground I find is the common ground of suffering because everybody is suffering – both sides lost their land, their children – and I have to work with the suffering…the people talk to me and say what they are feeling, their truth, not the truth, but their truth about their own suffering. And then I mix the two in the same group, they can hear the suffering of the other part. So the common ground of suffering was the base of the play.[viii]
In this quote, Lecomte emphasizes the individual particularity of truth versus the universalized application of truth – to express shared suffering. The grassroots artists whom I interviewed in Rwanda similarly spoke of the significance of shared suffering. It was often the moment when victims and perpetrators identified the depth of shared suffering between one another that they decided to create grassroots associations with a mixture of perpetrators, survivors, and community members (see Chapter Five).
[i] Image Theatre and Forum Theatre are theatre practices that originated from a Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal. As the director of the Arena Theatre in Sao Paulo from 1956-1971, Boal created a genre of theatre called ‘Theatre of the Oppressed.’ After a military coup in 1968, Boal developed exercises to engage the populace to create their desired future by staging and rehearsing problems they faced and their potential solutions. Among some of the methods were Image Theatre and Forum Theatre, both theatrical devices to establish dialogue and community problem solving. Playback Theatre originated from American practitioner Jonathan Fox in the 1970’s, integrating elements of storytelling, ritual, and psychodrama into a participatory form of theatre. During a playback workshop or performance, the emphasis is based on discovering the ‘essence’ of the story and ‘playing it back’ through varied techniques.
[ii] For more information about insider-outsider relationships and the work of Frédérique Lecomte and Search for Common Ground (SFCG) see James Thompson, Jenny Hughes, and Michael Balfour ‘In Between War and Peace’ in Performance in Place of War (Calcutta: Seagull Books) pp. 136-192.
[iii] Interview with Frédérique Lecomte. Interview by Author. October 2005.
[iv] Interview with Frédérique Lecomte. Interview by Author. 10 January 2012.
[v] Observation of workshop in Burundian prison. Observation by Author. October 2005.
[vi] Interview with Frédérique Lecomte. Interview by Author. 10 January 2012.
[viii] Thompson, Performance in Place of War, p. 181.