LETTING BYGONES BE BYGONES
By Alex Perry
*This article was originally published in The Time on March 1st, 2007.
Get these for the opening lines to a musical: ‘Forty-three wounds on his body. Acid in his face. Chopped off his right hand. Then he was blown up. His pieces were splattered all over the floor. His pieces were splattered all over the wall. His pieces were splattered all over the ceiling.’
With lyrics like those, Truth in Translation will probably not be going to Broadway. The musical, which dramatizes the work of translators at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is going to far more interesting places. Since opening in Rwanda last August, it has played Johannesburg and Cape Town, and is now set for runs in Liberia, the Balkans and Northern Ireland, before ending up way off Broadway at the basement Colonnades Theater Lab in New York City. Director and Colonnades founder Michael Lessac says his aim is to tell the story of an ‘evolutionary step for humanity,’ a time when South Africa did ‘something that no other country in the world has ever done: forgave the past to survive the future.’ With music by Hugh Masekela, a cast that includes some of South Africa’s leading actors and a script that uses verbatim testimonies from the two years of hearings that began in April 1996, Truth in Translation is innovative, surprisingly funny in places and consistently moving. The raw gospel lament by one witness, Mrs. Mtimkhulu, for her dead son, sung by Thembi Mtshali-Jones at the end of the first act, has extraordinary power, leaving the audience in pale shock as the interval lights come up. But Truth in Translation is more than a remarkable stage production. It is a testament to the human need to reconcile, and an examination of our capacity to do so. ‘Mrs. Mtimkhulu, will you forgive those responsible for your son’s death?’ asks Commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s translator, played by Nick Boraine, as she finishes her testimony. ‘Not today,’ she replies.
The planned international tour is evidence of the director’s belief that much of the planet could do with a little truth and reconciliation. Lessac has chosen to stage his play in ‘conflict and healing zones around the world,’ he says, places ‘where people still might not be able to let go of thoughts of victimhood, entitlement, vengeance and denial.’ He’s talking of places like Kosovo or Jerusalem — or Somalia, where civil war between hundreds of clans has raged for 16 years and where it takes many minutes for strangers to introduce themselves, so intricate are the ethnic lineages that must be recounted to distinguish friend from foe.
But is there always redemption in reconciliation? What about justice? Some crimes seem too monstrous for absolution. Even today, it’s a brave soul who argues that Hitler should be forgiven the Holocaust, Stalin his purges or Mao his Great Leap Forward. Were justice and reckoning not cheated by the deaths of Milosevic and Pinochet? What about more recent atrocities? On Feb. 27, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in the Hague presented evidence that a Sudanese government minister and a militia leader were allegedly responsible for war crimes committed in Darfur in 2003 and 2004. When wounds are so fresh, it’s difficult to argue for forgiveness.
Then, again, does a stubborn insistence that justice be served always serve the greater good? Consider Uganda. Most Ugandans, including President Yoweri Museveni, believe the biggest obstacle to peace after 20 years of war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army is the international community’s insistence on trying L.R.A. leader Joseph Kony for war crimes in the Hague — a threat that keeps him and his army holed up in the jungle. Think also of Gaza, or Kashmir or Iraq — all places where demanding retribution for historic injustices is one of the surest signs of fanaticism.
Lessac argues that ‘the basis of hope for the rest of the world’ lies in a wider appreciation of the word on which post-apartheid South Africa was founded. Ubuntu is a term that expresses that idea that each man — rich, poor, friend, enemy — is irrevocably bound to the next. Its English translations are various: ‘togetherness,’ ‘humanity toward others,’ ‘I am because we are.’ Nelson Mandela explained ubuntu as follows: ‘A traveler through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu, but it’ll have various aspects … The question is: Are you going to … enable the community around you to be able to improve?’ That’s not a question people often ask themselves in war zones or war courts. The lesson of South Africa is: they should.’