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"Play gives voice to apartheid experiences" - Mott Foundation

A play that ignited hope in Rwanda and was prescribed as a cure for “historical amnesia” in South Africa is making its inaugural U.S. tour in September with five stops, including performances in Mott’s home community of Flint, Mich.

“Truth in Translation” was birthed in South Africa and gives audiences a close-up view of the horrific effects of racist policies and practices during the apartheid era. It also shares a message about forgiving wounds of the past—without forgetting them—and working together to create a better future.

International reviewers have described the play as “bitterly powerful,” “extremely moving,” and “laced with exquisite music and lyrics.”

The drama unfolds through the eyes and ears of those who were employed to translate testimonies of both abusers and victims into South Africa’s 11 official languages during the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in the mid-1990s.

“The TRC gave people a voice. It acknowledged them. There is real power in telling one’s own story and speaking the truth for others to hear. We continue to give voice to their stories through this play,” said Producer Yvette Hardie.

South Africa ’s TRC was a unique attempt to deal with a specific time in the country’s history, which was characterized by human rights abuses and crimes. Established on the eve of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, the TRC’s goal was to shed light on the causes and extent of gross human rights violations during the apartheid period. Additionally, the TRC worked to uncover what happened to the dead and disappeared—and allowed living victims to give accounts of what they suffered. The TRC also determined which perpetrators were granted amnesty after they made full disclosure of their criminal actions.

Hardie said some people—including those who lived through the apartheid era, or were too young to remember it, or not yet born—question whether victims are embellishing their stories about atrocities committed with the government’s consent.

“There seems to be a growing amnesia about the past. Some South Africans are saying, ‘It was not really as bad as people say it was.’ But the play’s dialogue is reflective of actual TRC testimony. It was that bad.

“We believe the play is a non-threatening way to tell the truth and also to inoculate people with the values of tolerance and democracy, especially young people, so this doesn’t ever happen again.”

Hardie, along with about 25 cast and crew members, started traveling a year ago when “Truth in Translation” made its international premiere in Kigali, Rwanda. From there, the team returned to South Africa and performed before audiences in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Most recently, the production was staged in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won a prestigious Fringe First Award.

The play begins its U.S. tour from Sept. 6-8 in Dallas, before arriving in Flint for performances and workshops from Sept. 12-15. Following Flint, the production moves to Colorado Springs for shows from Sept. 21-23, and then on to Jackson Hole, Wyo. from Sept. 28-30. The play wraps up its final U.S. performances from Oct. 4-6 in the nation’s capitol.

Michael Lessac, founder and director of New York City’s highly acclaimed Colonnades Theatre Lab, conceived the idea of the play; he also created a vehicle for sharing it around the globe. In 2005, he established the Colonnades Theatre Lab-South Africa as a nonprofit organization.

The Mott Foundation made an 18-month $100,000 grant to Colonnades-South Africa in 2006 to support the play’s production costs. Mott made a second one-year grant of $30,000 to Colonnades in late 2006 to help fund a future tour of the play in the Balkans region of Europe. Additionally, Mott made a five-month, $170,000 grant in 2007 to the Flint Cultural Center Corporation to provide support for hosting a Flint residency, which includes free public performances and also educational workshops for students and community members.

When developing the play, Lessac decided not to shine the spotlight on those with highly visible roles in the TRC, such as Chairman Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, but to instead focus on the young and nearly invisible interpreters who traveled the country listening to horrifying testimonies—all the while being instructed “Don’t get involved.”

As the play unfolds, the audience sees how impossible it is for the translators to remain neutral after hearing testimonies of police brutality, torture, and revenge killings, Hardie said.

The “beautiful but chilling” lyrics and music by South Africa’s own Hugh Masekela adds richness and depth to the production, she said.

Music figures prominently in the play because of its important role in South African life—whether during times of pain, struggle, celebration or life passages, Hardie said.

Music was also a critical element of the TRC experience.

“When the testimony would become too much, perhaps for a mother whose son was killed. She might scream or break down, and then somebody out in the hall would start singing a hymn. Music has the power to sustain us,” she said.

While the music adds texture, the play’s simple props—shirts serving as a screen, large boxes and water glasses—make it easier for audiences to concentrate on the universal messages without being distracted, Hardie said.

Whether in countries with recent conflicts, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland or Rwanda, people need to learn how to address their differences in ways that lead to healing and not harm, she said.

“The Rwandans couldn’t believe that we had a mixed cast of blacks and whites who were able to perform together. For them, the play became a catalyst for dialogue, a catalyst for change.”

While there has been an ongoing push for reconciliation between the warring Hutu and Tutu tribes in Rwanda, it often came with an implication that people needed to bury the past, Hardie said. But after viewing the play and engaging in workshops led by the cast, Rwandans began to visualize ways to accept the past, seek and offer forgiveness, and move forward, she said.

“The play brings people into the same space and allows them to take things back to their own realities. In places like South Africa and Rwanda, where the conflict has been overt, they draw parallels to their own lives that make it very emotional, very immediate and very real.

“But even for other audiences, they still can feel a collective response. They have been through the emotions together. ‘Truth in Translation’ is really about shared humanity.”