- Hair on a Ribbon That Got Away
When it comes to international treaties, the United States is insular. In my new play Dog and Wolf, an American asylum lawyer, Joseph, tells his refugee client, Jasmina, that smoking is not permitted. "You Americans like to kill people with greenhouse gases, correct? No Kyoto protocol," she answers, as she tries to light up.1 The refugee has watched bone after bone be buried in search of a remnant of her sister, who was raped and killed during the Bosnian genocide. It is only after her mother is dead that Jasmina learns that her sister, who was pregnant, had her baby cut out from inside her as her mother was forced to watch. She tells Joseph:
We know where killers are and no one has courage to confront them! Storm came into my village and destroyed it! Coming home to stare into muddy trench—trying to find remains of sister who in fairness I did not know very well. How can sister be disappeared, trench filled with bodies—and the one who killed her—drinking in tavern? That is unknown I live with and cannot solve. Why I keep smoking while it kills me—make me more speechless.2
Writing for the theatre gives me the opportunity to create stories that affirm the beauty, humor, and depth of women's survival, while also breaking down walls and exposing uncomfortable truths. Some of our civilization's "best-kept secrets"—that is to say, violence against women and denial of even basic human rights—are not secrets at all. Theatre can allow audiences to become witnesses, and through this communal act of witnessing, there can be re-imagination and even revolution.
Many of my plays are about my own complicity: that of being from the United States. In terms of the Kyoto Protocol, which Jasmina refers to when she is asked not to smoke, the United States has refused to ratify this global-warming agreement, and yet is responsible for disproportionately high emissions polluting the world's air. Also, the United States did not ratify the genocide convention, Raphael Lemkin's treaty, until decades after Lemkin was dead. In my play Lemkin's House, Lemkin tells his mother that his law is "[a] bad Polish joke. . . . Meaningless words." His mother responds, "Your syllables. Shaping in your mouth, that can help."3 In a play, one can reincarnate the dead, give voice to the voiceless, and write those back into history who have been excised. [End Page 535]
Fifteen years after the declaration at the United Nations' World Conference on Women in Beijing that "women's rights are human rights," the concept is still novel. Just recently, I attended a global summit, "Women in the World," where Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, referred to an old clip of herself making this famous declaration at Beijing. "Many hairstyles ago . . .," she commented self-deprecatingly, and the audience erupted in laughter.4 If only there were any hair left to show for all the women who have died, and continue to die, from gender-based violence in far-too-large numbers. Lemkin asks his mother how long she lasted in the gas chamber. "Longer than the hair on a ribbon that got away," she answers, "but shorter I think than the drip of ink drying on paper."5 How long will these ribbons get away from us?
I have had the privilege of watching many actors play a young Cambodian woman who reveals a sacred ribbon in my play Photographs from S-21. The actors, Morm Sokly, Dawn Saito, and Sophy Theam among them, have performed the play in places around the globe and in idiosyncratic circumstances. Theam, for example, was the assistant director of a production in Boston, and on a night's notice stepped in to play the part. At the end of the play, the young woman holds out her fist, which has been clenched throughout. "When I am newly born in my next life, I will still remember the Khmer Rouge," she says as she opens her hand, and the young man next to her takes a child's hair ribbon...