Without sounding too conceited, I have to admit that I consider myself to be a pretty smart, introspective, globally-savvy guy. So it’s a little unsettling for me when I go to an arts and culture event, and I end up feeling uninformed, inadequate, unimaginative, an intellectual lightweight. That’s how I felt on Sunday when I went to see an extraordinary production of Peter Weiss’ famous Holocaust-themed play The Investigation from the Rwandan theater company Urwintore, already highly-acclaimed in London and Paris, and currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of it’s exemplary World’s Stage Series. The matinee performance was bookended by two fascinating events: a pre-show discussion called “Perspectives on The Investigation” which had intellectual heavyweights Chicago Humanities Festival and well-known New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, educator and writer Elliot Lefkovitz (who worked with Steven Spielberg on the Survivors of the Shoah project), and Northwestern Professor of Performance Studies and human rights activist D. Soyini Madison on the panel to provide not just context for the production, but also their rich, thoughtful perspectives on the complex intersection of theater, history, and socio-political reconciliation. More impactfully, the performance was followed by a post-show discussion with the actors, including director, adapter, and Urwintore founder Dorcy Rugamba, who lost close family members during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the end of the day, I was intellectually and emotionally spent (so much so that I forgot I actually spent five straight hours at that pit of excessive commercialism, Navy Pier, where the Chicago Shakes theater is located), but it was a deeply rewarding experience, full of new learnings and insights, and a especially shattering one – seeing these fantastic actors, survivors of a recent genocide speaking and acting out words related to the biggest genocide in history, was too devastating for words.
The Investigation is a forerunner of the documentary play. Written in 1965, playwright Weiss (who also wrote the contemporary theatrical masterpiece Marat/Sade) selected and edited five and a hours worth of verbatim transcripts from the Frankfurt trials of 1963-1965, in which midlevel officers at Auschwitz were tried under German law, and incorporated some of his notes from the trial in the stage directions and in the sequencing of the testimony. It continues to be universally recognized as a theatrical masterpiece, strikingly honest in its depiction of why and how ordinary citizens can participate in unspeakably evil acts against other people. It’s shocking, utterly devastating, still-potent power is derived from its point that genocide is a communal act – as the panelists in the pre-show discussion all agreed, the play illustrates the “apparatus” that allowed the Holocaust to occur. Yes, there were ideologues and national leaders who conceived and ordered the extermination of the Jews and political prisoners, but there were also many, many people who actually committed the acts that allowed the extermination to occur- the guards, the soldiers, the office clerks, etc. who were all willing participants in the heinous act, who, in most of their minds, were following orders, for whatever reasons they might have had (actual belief in the ideology, peer pressure, social advancement, unimaginative thinking, fear of being punished for dissent, etc.). There were also many, many people in Germany, who by doing nothing, by not speaking out, allowed the Holocaust to occur.
Urwintore’s version condenses the play to 80 muscular, riveting minutes. The actors, mostly Rwandan, but some Congolese, speak the words of the Frankfurt judges, defendants, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and witnesses, in even-keeled tones, sitting down, standing up, leaning on steel bars, with dramatic moments here and there (such as a guard vehemently denying that he killed anyone in Auschwitz) punctuating the simple, straightforward staging. Although the play is performed in French, at some points, the cast break out into Kinyarwandan songs, which serve not only as effective counterpoints to the emotionally bruising language but also powerfully connects the text to the actors’ own life experiences and recent history. The context, scale, and impact of the Holocaust is obviously dissimilar to that of the Rwandan genocide, but to see these actors saying those lines is mindbending and deeply heartbreaking – we, the audience, are reminded, with a sock to our collective gut and a stinging slap on our cheek, that indescribable evil, the wiping out of entire populations of people, are continuing to occur in our time (Darfur is a more current example), and it‘s necessary, and urgent, for us to stop it, with all our resources and all our might. Urwintore’s production, without any fussy theatrical devices or false directorial choices, makes the unforgettable point that we have not learned anything from the past. This is theater that is both painful and breathtaking.
There are so many layers and provocative challenges to this unique production that a mere blogpost could not, and should not, aspire to unravel and dissect. For one, the Frankfurt tribunal can be seen as both a foreshadower and an inverse of the Rwandan gacacas, or the village tribunals set up in the early 2000s to mete out justice to those accused of the genocide crimes within a community setting, but which also had an objective of initiating national reconciliation and healing. For another, the fact that the actors speak in French, one of Rwanda’s official languages, but also a colonial language, not just of the country but of the rest of East Africa can act as a commentary on the colonial roots of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict that precipitated the genocide. The artistic and intellectual decision to have Urwintore perform this particular material, instead of a play that presents specific Rwandan stories of the genocide, as Chris Jones wishes for in his review, can also be perceived in a variety of ways: as panelist Madison said in the pre-performance discussion, it’s a way to show the universality of genocide to spur us to reflect and act; or it can also be an indication of the preparedness and state of mind and heart of the Rwandan people to deal with their history and to effect true national healing (as Rugamba hinted in the post-performance discussion; Urwintore had already performed an original work, Rwanda 94, dealing with the stories of the genocide, but only Tutsi survivors showed up in the audience).
It’s only been four weeks into 2009, and Chicago audiences have already been blest with world theater of such high-caliber, the Wooster Group and Companhia Triptal productions in the Goodman’s O’Neill Festival, and this production, that I’m extremely excited for the rest of the theatrical year (Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Ivo Von Hove will probably blow up the Goodman brick by solid brick when it arrives in late February at the O’Neill Festival). I’m also very, very heartened to see that at least Emperor Jones and The Investigation packed to the rafters with audiences of higher diversity than I have seen in Chicago’s theaters over the years. It’s so wonderful to live in this town, 15 below temperatures and all!
The Investigation is playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs Theater, 800 E. Grand Avenue, Navy Pier, until January 31. This is unmissable, so if you have money to spend on an arts event, spend it on this one.