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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 80-86

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Théâtre Du Soleil Dramatic Response to the Global Refugee Crisis

Théâtre du Soleil, Le dernier caravanserail (Odyssées), directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, The Cartoucherie, Vincennes, Paris, opened April 2, 2003 and continuing on a world tour to Berlin, New York City, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2005 (July 17–31), and Melbourne through October 2005.

In our new century, human displacement has become one of our most urgent concerns. "One out of every 200 people worldwide is displaced and without a home," according to The Carr Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, there are more refugees today than ever before and their plight is ever more harrowing. Photographs and media coverage of uprooted peoples in detention camps around the world, waiting hopefully for resettlement, stare out at us daily from the pages of our newspapers and television screens. It is a global crisis that begs to be addressed on all fronts. Certainly the theatre should be an arena where such social and political issues can be heard. But can theatre successfully shed light on such a complicated situation as the refugee crisis and bring new understanding of its complexities? Peter Sellars (see interview in PAJ 79, 2005), for one, believes adamantly that this is the very function of theatre: to provide a forum where the most challenging issues of the day can be discussed in their true complexity. He is not alone. In fact recently there seems to be a resurgence among artists who have responded to the refugee crisis in their theatre pieces.

Enfants de Nuit, organized by a Belgian group, LFK-la fabriks, for example, deals with the first-hand experiences of young Senegalese refugees, "faxxmen" or "wandering children" as they are called, living off prostitution in the streets of Dakar. Enfants invites audiences, no more than ten at a time, to wander through a labyrinth of rooms in which original poems, photographs, videos, and live installations confront them with the plight of these desperate children. Their frightened faces stare out from the shadows just as they do when discovered in their underground hiding places in Dakar. A group of them whisper seductively from dark alcoves. Those are the survivors. Elsewhere, a cemetery of ragged clothes hanging on wooden crosses, baring the names of those who [End Page 80] have perished, is both riveting and strangely beautiful. Not only is the encounter with these "living deaths" transformative but the show itself, billed as an "Exhibition-Spectacle," raises important questions about the limits of theatre to deal with such material and forces us to rethink our role in this journey: visitor, participant, spectator, or voyeur?

Equally hard to define as theatre is Rwanda 94, a six-hour piece by Groupov, also from Belgium. Born of the urgent need to address the massive Rwandan genocide, Rwanda 94 took five years to create, including gathering testimony from survivors, conducting research, traveling to Rwanda, and finding an appropriate form to speak of the unspeakable. More oratorio than conventional theatre, Rwanda 94 is a combination of fictional tale, actual testimony by survivors of the massacres, music, both choral and instrumental, a history lecture, and video projections. Each night, sitting alone on a little chair in the middle of a large empty stage, Yolande Mukagasana, a survivor, opens the play by recounting her traumatic story of genocide and escape, including her husband's and children's deaths. She is there not to perform but to testify, as are the other survivors in the play.

Such direct testimony is the very essence of Ping Chong's Children of War, part of his Undesirable Elements series (see PAJ 76, 2004). Five children, ages twelve to nineteen, from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, El Salvador, and Kurdistan, all victims of the horrors of war, sit in a semi-circle and recount their firsthand experiences of murdered fathers and families torn apart. The sixth participant is a therapist who treats victims of trauma and...


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