York film prof’s anti-war play to launch Rwandan theatre company

York film Professor Colleen Wagner is currently in Rwanda where her play The Monument, winner of the 1996 Governor General’s Award for Drama, will receive a landmark production next month. It will be the inaugural presentation of a new theatre company called Isoko, founded by artistic director Jennifer Capraru, a York course director at Glendon.

Right: Professor Colleen Wagner

The Monument is about a young soldier convicted of war crimes and a woman who suspects he knows the whereabouts of her missing daughter. The play charts the visceral journey of the two characters after she arranges his release. It examines the ambiguities of morality and justice, the paradox of being a soldier today, and the distance that must be traversed to reach reconciliation.

Isoko’s aim is to use theatre to­ help reconstruct Rwanda’s social fabric and economic development in the wake of the bloody civil war and genocide that wracked the country in the mid-1990s. It will be the first organization of its kind in the country to use theatre to support human rights through cross-cultural dialogue.

"The Monument speaks to the universal theme of war," said Wagner. "I heard a comment from [Canadian Forces Lieutenant-General] Roméo Dallaire that really spoke to me. When asked what the world could do for Rwanda, he said: ‘send an army of artists’.

Right and below: Actors rehearse scenes from Wagner’s play 

“During the Rwandan genocide, neighbours killed each other. Now the survivors, victims and perpetrators, are once again living side by side. How does one begin to repair and to speak about what happened?", said Wagner.

Capraru directed two readings of The Monument in French and English in May 2007 at Rwanda’s National Genocide Memorial, Gisozi. It was the first cultural activity to take place there. The readings were enthusiastically received and generated intense discussion and the team decided to mount a full production based on that response.

Wagner plans to be in Africa for about a month to attend rehearsals and assist with the translation and dramaturgy by clarifying the intention behind her words if needed for the adaptation to this new setting.

“I can’t imagine what I’m in for, but I look forward to the planned talk-back sessions following the performances,” Wagner said in an interview before her departure for Rwanda on June 11.  

The Monument is being produced in English and Kinyarwanda, a popular local dialect. It will open in Butare on July 4 (which is known as Liberation Day, commemorating the end of the 100 days during which the genocide raged). The play will be performed in a tent, allowing for a flexible, portable production. It will subsequently tour the countryside, with stops in Kibuye, Gisenyi, Gikongoro and other locations, ending with a run in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, in August.

Capraru has travelled and worked in East Africa since 2005, exploring the role culture can play in healing society. In 2006 she worked with Dallaire on the Emmy Award-winning documentary Shake Hands with the Devil, which is based on Dallaire’s book chronicling his tour as force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1993-94, during which he witnessed the Rwandan genocide. Capraru was subsequently invited to work with the Rwanda Cinema Centre and the National University of Rwanda, UNICEF, Never Again, Kivu Writers, and Mashrika Arts (Rwanda’s sole professional theatre company). She established Isoko out of these partnerships and collaborations.

Capraru and Isoko explain their motivation on their Web site. “We believe that there is no one way to solve a problem. Theatre might not be able to fill your stomach, but it can make you forget your hunger pangs for a little while. It may not make you literate, but it can educate you. The solutions to the world’s problems are many. This is ours.”

The Monument premiered 13 years ago at CanStage in Toronto and has since played around the world. It has been translated into French, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Mandarin and now Kinyarwanda. The 2006 production by Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre Company set the play in the Sudan.

Wagner is a professor of screenwriting in the Department of Film at York. She is a published and award-winning playwright, screenwriter and short fiction writer. Her first work for the stage, Sand, was shortlisted for best international play at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England. Other stage credits include Eclipsed; Home which premiered in France; and The Morning Bird, which premiered at the NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival in Fredericton, NB, and On the Verge in St. John’s, Nfld. and is currently being translated into French. She has written a number of feature film scripts, including an adaptation of The Monument, and is working on a new screenplay and new play.