Photo courtesy of Public Affairs & Communications

20 years later, theatre department remembers Rwandan Genocide

By Jessica Kostka /// Staff Writer

A Catholic nun in Rwanda prays seven times a day. She reveals the location of 7,000 refugees who sought asylum within her convent, resulting in their destruction and goes back to praying seven times a day. What does she pray about?

A politician and a young woman both steal from the foreign aid given to a village. Are the two thefts–one on a large scale and one on a small scale–equally wrong? How can justice be attained in a way that lets the community move forward?

These are the questions explored in plays that director Emily Mendelsohn has brought to life. The play about the nun is “Maria Kizito” by Erik Ehn; the second play is “Cooking Oil” by Deborah Asiimwe. Both were based on true events that happened in Rwanda and Uganda.

On Saturday morning in the Black Box Theatre, Mendelsohn led a small group of students and community members in several activities focused on cross-cultural theatre. Together, they learned a traditional East African song that family members sing after the death of a loved one. They also created two unique song-and-dance routines. The intent was to tell a story that, like the other plays Mendelsohn has directed, was rooted in the real-life experiences of the actors.

During a second event on Monday night, Mendelsohn spoke of her experiences producing “Cooking Oil” with playwright Asiimwe, whom she met at California Institute of the Arts. The work began after graduation when Mendelsohn became a Fulbright Fellow in Uganda. There, she and Asiimwe, who is a Ugandan citizen, created the play, which was performed in Uganda and Rwanda before touring the United States.

Mendelsohn showed her audience a short clip of “Cooking Oil” as performed in Los Angeles. The dialogue of the highly dynamic play draws from the tradition of call-and-response in African oral art forms and retains the rhythm of indigenous languages. The actors use empty aid cans as percussion, and fully utilize the circular stage.

“It doesn’t hold back. It ends with the implication that the cycle of theft from the aid will continue,” Mendelsohn says of ‘Cooking Oil’.“It calls for the necessity of restorative rather than punitive justice.”

Another one of Asiimwe’s creations, “Appointment with gOD,” will be at Portland State University from April 11-13 for a series of workshop performances, which Mendelsohn will also be directing. The play deals with the U.S. visa application process from an African perspective. Although Asiimwe was unable to attend Monday’s discussion (due, rather ironically, to a visa issue), she sent a recorded video from Uganda to be played at the event.

“I believe that exchange is oxygen,” Asiimwe says in regards to contact between cultures. She tells us that her work “retains the languages that live within [her] body,” even though most of her work is in English. Her work, she says, “engages body, spirit and intellect.”

At the conclusion of Monday’s event, to commemorate the loss of 800,000 lives during the genocide of two decades ago, Mendelsohn lit a single purple candle on the floor of the theatre. In Rwanda, purple is the color associated with mourning.

The commemoration of the Rwandan genocide continues next week with several other on-campus events. All events are free and open to the public.


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