Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Chance. There was war in the region where Chance lived, and so his family had to abandon him. Chance was discovered by a man who raised him as his son, and then, when he was old enough to fight, entered him in the army. Chance had both of his arms cut off in the fighting, and decided to return to Rwanda to find his family…

I sit here trying to understand why it’s taken me almost two months to write about the CRC play. April is a blur of contrasting memories competing for space in my undecided narrative. Images of joyful drumming and tearful goodbyes are wedged unceremoniously between heated arguments, uncomfortable contracts, and confusing artistic compromises.

Chance’s family didn’t recognize the boy, who was all grown up and had no arms. The real Chance, they said, had arms and hands. But they took the boy in anyways. Chance’s mother had long since passed away, and his stepmother disliked him because he ate too much food. Eventually she had enough, and one night when he was sleeping, she picked him up and threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish.

We asked the boys to present us with their stories, hopes, and fears, and what they came up with was a bizarre but ultimately eloquent collection of scenes and stories that captured, quite poetically, their protected emotional state as they transitioned out of their lives as fighters and prepared themselves to meet and live with their long-lost families and communities.

The fish swam across the world and spit the boy up in America. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a rich man who taught him how to fly a plane. Chance returned to Rwanda in his plane. When his family saw him—able-bodied, rich, and flying a plane—they repented their decision to reject him, and asked him back into the family. But Chance rejected them in turn, and flew back to America where he lived happily ever after.

After an initial showing for the Programs Coordinator at the RDRC, the boys were given a speech asking them to reflect on what their time at the center had taught them. They were given pointed suggestions which were eagerly adopted and incorporated into the piece. Our free-flowing devised theatre collage was starting to look, in moments, like that dreaded monster of arts in the developing world: “NGO Theatre”.

The fish swam across the lake and spit the boy up in Gisenyi. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a commissioner from the RDRC, who brought him to the rehabilitation center and taught him valuable job skills, and how to read and write. Chance went home to see his family, and because he had arms and job skills, they wanted to take him back. But Chance was too proud, and rejected them. The RDRC man scolded Chance for his pride, and told him to make peace with his family. At the same time, Chance’s family lamented ever rejecting him. Chance returned to his family who embraced him with open arms, and they lived happily ever after.

So much was a fight in Rwanda. Just getting the T-shirts printed in the right color (a battle lost), at the right price (lost), in the right sizes (won), and in time for the show (won, barely) all took such an enormous amount of effort. We didn’t know for sure until 2 days before the performance whether or not the boys would even be allowed to perform at all. So I didn’t really get a chance to pick my battles, because I was necessarily immersed in so many just to tackle the simple logistical task of staging a play—any play. When the boys were asked to change parts of it, there were enough sound reasons provided (the need to combat FDLR propaganda, a desire to avoid awkward allusions to the slave trade…) that I didn’t really feel inclined to dig my heels in and fight yet another battle for the sake of “poetic voice and artistic authenticity.” Also, I was scared. I was scared that if I didn’t compromise a little, the whole project would be called off.

But at the end of the day, any disagreement was a simple question of aesthetic difference, and contrasting ideas about how change occurs. We all wanted to arrive at the same place; it’s just that I believed the best way to get there was through exploring process, whereas others believed in the effectiveness of propounding messages. And either or both of us may have been right. So that’s not why I took two months to write this. It’s not an anger thing, or even a fear thing.

I think, if I’m really honest, what happened in Rwanda was that I lost focus. My focus going in, my focus this whole year, has been “ex-fighters and their voice.” Their voice. And towards my last weeks in Kigali and Musanze, my focus got fractured and spread between filming rights and documentary crews and logo permissions and t-shirt orders. Coming away, looking at all of the things I fought for in those last weeks, I regret not having stood up for the only one that I actually deeply cared about: the boys’ thoughts and ideas. I’ve been waiting to post this last entry for Rwanda because there’s a poem that Crispin wrote which I wanted to publish here, in lieu of all of my rambling musings. Unfortunately, I don’t have that poem yet; it’s on a friend’s computer in Rwanda, because while my collaborators were translating the boys’ words and stories from Kinyarwanda to French and English for the subtitles, I was choreographing movements and calling T-shirt companies and running the sound board. 

I never learned Crispin’s poem. That’s why I haven’t posted anything yet. Because all of the other stuff, all of my little personal dramas, don’t actually matter as much. They take up space that should be saved for something else entirely.