You should go see The Living. In a sentence, The Living, playing in Toronto as part of the SummerWorks Festival, is about the process of reconciliation after genocide. How do you live beside someone who murdered your family? How do you erase years of anger and hatred?
“You probably won’t be able to laugh in this play,” the audience member beside me wisely said to her companion. The Living is complicated, brutal, raw, frustrating, satisfying, and definitely a play worth seeing.
The performance is set in an unnamed place, at an unspecified time. All we are told is that there are two communities separated by a hill and it has been ten years since the end of a genocidal war. The male characters who reside at the top of the hill are haunted by their violent deeds while their wives struggle with the guilt of not speaking out against those actions.
The victims who live at the bottom of the hill are suffering from the lingering physical and psychological scars of their horrific experiences and the indignity of having to live among their perpetrators. A small ray of light comes from a pair of Romeo and Juliet-esque lovers who just wants to leave the past behind them.
The Living is a very polished production. The BMO Incubator is a theatre-in-the-round and the stage was set a foot below the seats. Although you can’t always see everyone, the direction made good use of all sides and the acting was so riveting across-the-board that the silent moments were held with just as much intensity as the delivery of its unflinching dialogue. The choreography, costuming, lighting, and sound design all added to the mood and was expertly cued.
I have to admit I was a bit hesitant at first when I saw that this play, inspired by events in Africa, was written by a Caucasian woman. While there is always a need for more female voices in Canadian theatre, there is an even greater need for women of colour to be given the opportunity to speak for themselves. However, the playwright seemed to have preempted this by noting in the program that she was “approached” by Rwandan women to “tell their story.”
Indeed, the play does present a multitude of perspectives on the issue of genocide and reconciliation – from victims, witnesses, and even the perpetrators. It examines the inadequacy and hypocrisy of religious organizations in post-genocide communities and the (psychological and physical) intergenerational trauma caused by sexual violence. But what I was most impressed by was Wagner’s strong portrayal of women in crises. It was so rewarding to see a play filled with assertive female characters who are not only seizing control of their lives but also leadership of their community.
I did wish for some notes from the director as I would’ve liked to know more about the casting process. There has been a movement in the theatre world from “colour-blind” to “colour-conscious” casting and while all the performers were excellent, I wondered about the reasoning behind certain casting decisions.
I also want to warn of a particularly graphic movement sequence depicting sexual violence that, while incredibly necessary to the show, may be a trigger for some.
As someone who has studied ethnic conflict and often seek out social justice theatre works, I was familiar with a lot of these issues, but every time I see a play like The Living, I am reminded of how seldom we hear or read about these stories in its full complexity and how satisfying it is to hear the anger and injustice that is felt by many so candidly expressed.
- Sunday August 9th 2:15 PM
- Monday August 10th 10:00 PM
- Wednesday August 12th 9:45 PM
- Thursday August 13th 7:30 PM
- Saturday August 15th 2:45 PM
- Sunday August 16th 5:30 PM
Individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Live Art Series tickets are free – $20. Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, by phone at 888-328-8384, Monday – Friday 8:30am-5pm, in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St). Open August 4-16 from 10am-7pm (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee).
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.
Photo provided by the company.