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A Unique Moment in Time - The TRC - Cape Times

‘They are who we would be if we didn’t turn away, if we listened, if we heard, if we really saw people.’ Michael Lessac, the compact and intense 61-year-old New York director of ‘Truth In Translation’ is recalling the moment he struck on the idea of using the people who were employed to translate victim and perpetrator testimonies during the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation as a dramatic portal into an event he regards as ‘one of the most significant things that has ever happened in the history of mankind’.

Few professional South African theatre practitioners have reflected on this transformative process. Apart from William Kentridge’s ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’, John Kani’s ‘’Nothing But The Truth’ and more recently, Janice Honeyman, Antjie Krog and Phillip Miller’s ‘TRC Cantata’, the country’s playwrights have been unable or unwilling to tap the trauma, healing or deep social, psychological and political layering the TRC exposed.

Community theatre troupes like the Khulumani Support Group and The Victory Sonqoba Theatre Company – creators of ‘The Story I am About To Tell’ and ‘Thetha Ngikhulume (Speak so that I may Speak) – have effectively used the TRC as an educational and therapeutic dramatic tool, but apart from this, much of the territory is still begging to be charted on stage. But to Michael Lessac sitting in New York and looking for a ‘big, broad tapestry piece to do for the theatre’ the potential of the TRC, when he finally understood its significance, ‘leaps up at you’.‘

In a world that is poised for destruction, something happened here and I don’t care if it happened for a split second and then things supposedly went wrong. I don’t care if there is corruption. I don’t care that there is crime. The thing is, for a moment in time, something happened that has never happened before and it holds a lesson for the rest of the world.’It took Lessac, a trained psychologist, former singer, anti-war campaigner (Vietnam and Iraq) and television director, his producer wife Jackie and a collection of South African actors and theatre makers, about three years to create and construct ‘Truth In Translation’ now on at the Baxter Theatre.

The play, with music by Hugh Masekela and an accomplished cast consisting of Andrew Buckland, Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Quanita Adams, Jenny Stead, Robert Koen, Jeroen Kranenburg, Sandile Matsheni, Nick Boraine, Fana Mokoena, Bongani Gumede and Sibulele Gcilitshana, premiered in Kigali, Rwanda last year before playing at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

Lessac hopes to tour the production to the US and also conflict zones around the world including Liberia, Israel/Palestine, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. ‘There is something about this TRC, with all its flaws. We have to look at it and say, thank God for it and we need to remember that if it happened once it can happen again and that is why I wanted to tell the story not only here but also in other places where people might have given up hope.’

In Rwanda the ‘Truth in Translation’ cast and company found that audiences clearly found it easier to open up to actors and theatre makers and often remained behind after a performance to share their stories. ‘Somehow we are like gypsies, we are not officials, we are not authorities and people open up in a different way. And that is what the play does, open up a dialogue,’ said Lessac.Lessac says what some South Africans don’t realise is the power ‘of what you have done’. ‘People put it (the TRC) down, they say that ubuntu is a cliché. Well, to the rest of the world it isn’t. ‘I am because you are’. That is a highly sophisticated perceptual understanding of how the brain works, of how the heart works. Is that not truly how we form ourselves? Ubuntu is the bedrock of who we are,’ he adds.Lessac admits that he came to the project - one that has turned out to be the most significant in his long and illustrious theatre and film career - by accident. He had wanted to do something ‘meaningful’ when a friend suggested the TRC. ‘Of course I had heard about apartheid and the TRC but I didn’t really know what it was about. I was naïve,’ he confesses. Lessac says he asked his friend what the TRC was about and the man had answered ‘forgiveness.’‘

Now I was not brought up like that. The religious aspect of forgiveness felt like a trick to me. I said it sounded too ‘soft’,’ Lessac recalls with a laugh. The friend urged Lessac to read up on the subject, which he did including Archbishop Tutu’s ‘No Truth Without Forgiveness’ and TRC deputy chairperson, Alex Boraine’s ‘A Country Unmasked’ which offered him his ‘aha’ moment. ‘I had been grappling with a way of getting into it. I didn’t want to do the usual Holocaust story where victims face perpetrators. I wondered how to tell the story that really hits us where we live.’ And then it happened.

Lessac says he came across a line at the end of a chapter in Boraine’s book where he decided to buy flowers for the translators. ‘I thought ‘bingo’ there it is. For what are the translators if not actors, conduits through which the story passes? They had to tell everyone’s story. It had to be true and what happens when someone truly interprets is that you have to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes and that is basic acting. They were an unseen but vital element of the proceedings.’

Lessac and Jackie left for South Africa where they began extensive consultations with a wide range of South Africans. They talked to hundreds of people, from Tutu to the translators themselves as well as writers and journalists like Antjie Krog and Max du Preez. Apart from this, they watched hours of tapes of testimonies, confessions and other footage broadcast at the time.

In some respects, ‘Truth in Translation’ is a hybrid piece of ‘verbatim theatre’ first brought to the stage in England by Max Stafford Clark’s Out of Joint theatre company with productions, ‘The Permanent Way’ with playwright David Hare, and ‘Talking to Terrorists’ with Robin Soans. ‘The Permanent Way’ was dramatic treatise on the privatisation of British Rail and the crash in Southall in 1997. Survivors and relatives of the dead were interviewed and their testimonies woven into a powerful piece of contemporary political theatre. In ‘Talking to Terrorists’, Soans created a play about the experiences of a number of people he interviewed around the world who had been involved in acts of terrorism. But while the core of ‘Truth in Translation’ is based on the experiences of the translators, their stories, says Lessac, have been layered and overworked with the experiences of the actors themselves.

Lessac has enormous praise for the South African company who he says have a passion he has seldom encountered in the industry. ‘I have been in this business for 35 years and I don’t think I have ever worked with a company like this. They have such a commitment and passion for this work and this country. I needed to work with actors who wanted the same from this production as I did. I also wanted actors with sense of humour as despite the subject matter, there is a lot of it in the play. Working with them is like working with fresh earth,’ he says.

The relevance of the TRC beyond its role in the healing of the trauma of South African society, says Lessac, is the moral touchstone it offers the rest of the world. ‘In the beginning when I first met Tutu and we talked about forgiveness, an idea I found problematic, he said to me ‘you think I am saying to you that you must consider forgiveness because all people are basically good. But you have to consider forgiveness because all of us are capable of the most terrible evil.’ And that took it all to another level for me,’ recalls Lessac. In the end, he says, it is the words of truth commissioner Mary Burton that often come back to him.

He concludes; ‘She told me that South Africans wanted everything. Forgiveness, reconciliation, reparations. You wanted it all and it has taken a long time to understand and realise that what you did achieve, as problematic as it might be in hindsight, is extremely powerful and valuable to the rest of the world.’