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"South African production asks whether forgiveness can heal" - International Herald Tribune

DALLAS: Members of the musical production “Truth in Translation” say they are accomplishing something more than good theater with their sometimes uncomfortable story of apartheid in South Africa.

“I believe we are in the process of making theater history. We have written ourselves into the history books of post-apartheid theater,” said South African actress Quanita Adams, who portrays “Alia” in the musical that has been in the works since 2001.

It is the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the government-sanctioned system of segregation that was ruthlessly enforced by the then-minority white government. The official panel, which heard from apartheid’s victims and perpetrators after it ended, had the authority to grant pardons — which some saw as an important step toward full democracy.

“I felt very strongly something happened in South Africa that hadn’t happened anywhere else in the world,” said artistic director Michael Lessac, who conceived the project.

The saga is told through those whose job it was to matter-of-factly translate testimony detailing horrific attacks, bodies blown apart or limbs chopped off.

“Her skin came off in my hands,” a woman sings about rescuing a baby from a fire.

“Chopped off his right hand. Then he was blown up,” another song goes. “His pieces were splattered all over the floor. His pieces were splattered all over the wall. His pieces were splattered all over the ceiling.”

The goal is to take the production, with its focus on forgiving the past to survive the future, to the world’s most stubborn conflict zones. Venues include spots not exactly known as being Mecca for the arts.

“We opened in Rwanda, which is almost like a theatrical joke,” Lessac said recently in a telephone interview from Paris.

But how will it play in the United States?

The answer may come Thursday when the musical, which features a South African cast, makes its American debut at Southern Methodist University’s Bob Hope Theatre in Dallas. Other dates include Flint, Michigan, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C.

The Texas performance was prompted by Dallasite Lauren Embrey, who saw “Truth in Translation” while on a human rights trip to Rwanda last summer. Her family’s foundation is funding the visit, and admission is free.

Dallas audiences for show, which opens Thursday and continues through Saturday, are not typical theater patrons. Embrey has invited the homeless, victims of domestic violence, minority leaders and faith groups.

“I totally believe in the transformative power of the arts,” she said. “I believe it can be combined with education to make us more whole people.”

Lessac, founder of The Colonnades Theatre Lab in New York City, had initial doubts about bringing the project to North Texas. Then he decided his hesitancy was presumptuous.

“We’re all in conflict,” he said. “Wherever we go, you can find something.”

Performances are followed by “talk-backs,” which are being filmed for a documentary.

Lessac wrote and directed the 1993 film “House of Cards” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Kathleen Turner and directed more than 200 television shows and 16 pilots including “Taxi” and “Newhart.”

Lessac decided he wanted to return to theater and “do a piece with some power and that meant something.”

“In Hollywood, you rarely get to do something that has some relevance to what is going on in the world,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something that was a fairly wide open canvas piece, and somebody told me about the truth commission in South Africa, and honestly, I had not known very much about it.”

So he and his wife, Jacqueline, the show’s executive producer, went to South Africa and met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who presided over the commission.

Everywhere, Lessac said, was the feeling that a civil war had been avoided and that the people would not repeat the cycle of vengeance. Then the director centered on the idea of telling the story from the perspective of the translators, who stood between the victims and the truth commission but were told to remain detached.

“How could you conceivably do that?” Lessac asked. “You and I can read a newspaper and put it down in the middle of a story if we chose not to read it, if it disturbed us. They couldn’t.”

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela ("Grazing in the Grass") wrote Truth in Translation’s score.

The South African actors selected for the project incorporated their own stories into their roles. Adams and Robert Koen, who plays “Gideon,” spoke by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, after a recent performance.

“My father, grandfather, my uncles were all soldiers who fought for that government and in that regime,” said Robert Koen, the cast’s only Afrikaner, a descendant of the Dutch settlers who dominated South Africa for almost half a century.

“For me, it’s been something valuable and intense to deal with the guilt I never thought I had.”

Adams said the production sparks mixed responses among its diverse audiences. In Rwanda, memories of genocide were too fresh for one character’s jokes about cutting off someone’s hand.

“There was a hissing sound, kind of unapproving,” she said.

In Europe, Koen said, audiences weren’t sure whether they should laugh at certain parts. Mouths opened, he said, but no sounds came out.

“It’s a very natural thing to laugh about our pain and shortcoming,” he said.

Koen said the play doesn’t try to convince the audience that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was “a wonderful thing.”

“People even in South Africa are still in turmoil about it,” he said.

The players and Lessac are convinced, however, that there is immense value to people sharing their stories.

Lessac said the value of a truth commission is in a nonpolitical approach.

“By not taking sides, it just tells the story,” he said. “It was not about who was right and who was wrong, but ‘What did you feel? What did you think?’”