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"'Truth' sets new standard at Center for the Arts stage" - The Jackson Hole Planet

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Saying “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” is easy. Feeling real remorse or genuine forgiveness is not. That requires empathy – trying to actually view the world through the eyes of another – and empathy is not a skill that is widely taught in the public schools. In fact, in many ways it is something our culture tries to squash.

“Truth in Translation,” the triumphant drama with music by Jackson Hole’s Michael Lessac and a cast composed of some of South Africa’s finest actors and actresses of the screen and stage, finds an apt metaphor for empathy in the interpreter, specifically nine interpreters who provided real-time translation for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, active in the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.

As one interpreter puts it, in order to accurately translate the horrific tales of brutality –torture, rape, murder – from one of South Africa’s 11 languages to another, she not only has to hear the words, but has to envision the act, feel the terror.

“Truth in Translation,” which Lessac and company presented three times last Friday and Saturday at the Center Theater, is incredibly powerful – sad, poignant, often defying credulity that people could perpetrate such acts upon their fellow human beings. Large portions of the script were taken word for word from testimony gathered by the TRC.

Images and video footage of the times, some of it graphic, were projected throughout on a strange screen made up of dozens of shirts – representing, perhaps, the watching masses, the voiceless victims, or the realm of the heart across which the tragedy plays over and over.

But “Truth in Translation” also is quite beautiful and in the end remarkably tender, proving that forgiving is not about giving in, but about having the strength and will to take possession of an act of violence and transcend victimization.

That sounds like a bummer of a way to spend an evening, and indeed there’s no escaping the grim realities of this dark chapter in human history. But the play avoids the long spiral into darkness with humor and energy, giving equal time to our ability to treat each other with dignity, respect and love, and, perhaps most importantly, featuring some remarkably good acting.

There’s no singling out individual players – each off the 11 cast members put in gripping performances. Hearing their variously accented voices alone was a treat, like a taste of something exotic and authentic. They also showed great versatility, joining in on musical numbers and often having to solo.

Music plays a large role and also helps buoy the drama. Two live musicians perform on keyboards and percussion, providing not just accompaniment to songs – traditional songs of the long struggle as well as some incredible numbers by South African star Hugh Masekela, with lyrics again provided by TRC testimony – but also atmospheric music during haunting scenes of testimony and lounge-y party jazz during scenes at the bar to which the interpreters retreat between sessions, a prominent part of the flexible set.

With a gripping story to tell, a compelling script, top-notch acting, memorable musical numbers and clever stagecraft, “Truth in Translation” is the kind of world-class show the Center for the Arts’ theater was created to attract to the valley.

And while there were plenty of empty seats for Friday night’s performance, the audience was appreciative and receptive, a success that, one hopes, means Jackson Hole will experience more of this kind of quality art in the future. To not take advantage of such an opportunity would be al