by Lynn on September 20, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

Odile Gakire Katese
Photo by: Dahlia Katz


At the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre (formerly the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs), Toronto, Ont.

Co-created, written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and directed by Ross Manson

Projection design by Sean Frey and Kristine White

Production design by Kaitlin Hickey and Patrick Lavender

Composed by Mutangana Moise

Music performed by Ingoma Nshya the Women Drummers of Rwanda

Kaitlin Hickey and Patrick Lavender have designed a simple but beautiful set for the production. There is a white curtain at the back onto which projections will be illuminated. A goose necked lamp bows over a beautifully weaved chair besides which is a table. Both are on a large rug with a simple design. Stage right is a modern table on which Odile Gakire Katese will put the large binder which is her Book of Life. As we file into the theatre Odile Gakire Katese enters in a striking ensemble of a purple head-covering and a shift. She wears substantial yellow flip-flops, but that does not do justice to the elegance of the footwear. She writes something on a pad of paper and then tears off a sheet, crunches it up and throws that on the floor. She continues writing and again later discards what she has written by scrunching that up and throwing it on the floor. With such elegance in the set why is there no wastepaper basket? Deliberate? Hmmm I wonder why. Everything we will learn during this production suggests that Katese is fastidious in her care of what she does. Throwing the paper on the floor is therefore deliberate, but why?

The Book of Life is written and performed by Rwandan playwright, director, advocate and cultural entrepreneur Odile Gakire Katese and directed by Ross Manson. The play had its genesis from the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 against the Tutsis but the play is really about life. Odile Gakire Katese doesn’t spend much time on the atrocities, except in quickly describing late in the show that her grandmother was killed by machete during the uprising.

Odile Gakire Katese doesn’t know much about the many relatives missing, lost or dead in her family because her grandmother would not speak of it or inform her. She asks the audience to draw our idea of a grandfather so she can keep the drawing as her own. And we do. She picks the one she wants to keep. It’s given to projection manipulator, Kristine White who is behind the white curtain that hangs down at the back. Photos and drawings are projected onto the sheet from behind it.

In Odile Gakire Katese’s efforts to heal the wounds of the genocide she has interviewed survivors, children of survivors, those guilty of  atrocities and their children, and asked them to write a letter to one of the people that died or was killed, with the instruction: what would you write to that person? She also has music performed by Ingoma Nshya The Women Drummers of Rwanda, a group of women drummers she organized as one means of healing.

Katese reads the letters simply, quietly and also tacks up an accompanying photo on the white curtain at the back of the stage.

All the letters and photos are kept in a large black binder—the book of life—that Katese flips through, selecting the letters she wants to read as she goes. Each letter has an accompanying photo or drawing to be displayed on the curtain.

She illuminates these stories by bringing up fables of animals on one side of the world that is dark who want to ask the other side of the world with sunlight if they can have some for themselves.  It’s an interesting quest.

The letters she reads are extraordinary. One is from a daughter about her father who was guilty of war crimes.  He didn’t see why he was in jail for the rest of his life.  How does a daughter work with that? How she does it is part of the humanity of the piece.

But is it theatre? I found the premise to find the life in that horror admirable and interesting. Odile Gakire Katese is a soft-spoken, gracious story-teller, but her delivery is so low-key that it’s not always compelling theatrically.

It’s fluidly staged by Ross Manson.  There is a lot going on. There are projections of various animals.  Some of the grandfather drawings are projected along with cryptic lines that inform the narrative.  At times that proved a good distraction from the even delivery.

The Book of Life is not a history lesson. We don’t get background except that it references 1994 when the Rwanda Genocide started.  The intention of finding the life and humanity of people who either went through or caused the atrocities is worthy. I wish it was more compelling theatrically.

Canadian Stage presents a Volcano Production in association with the Women Cultural Centre, Rwanda and Why Not Theatre.

Opened: Sept. 19, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 26, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

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