Review: The Book of Life (Volcano Theatre, The Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda and Why Not Theatre)

Odile Gakire Katese in The Book of LifeThe Book of Life is “captivating and powerful” storytelling, now on stage in Toronto

Rwandan playwright and performer Odile Gakire (Kiki) Katese and Canadian director Ross Manson have created a healing work of theatre with The Book of Life, presented by Canadian Stage at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre. Written and performed by Katese, the show gives human face to the mass lives lost in the devastating 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Produced by Volcano Theatre (of which Manson is Artistic Director) in partnership with The Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda and Why Not Theatre, The Book of Life offers Rwandans a different path towards healing: a path rooted in remembering who the individuals beneath the graves were. By reading letters written by survivors, widows, orphans, children of perpetrators, and children born after the genocide, Katese brings to life victims with specificity and humanness: how they looked, hugged, spoke, shared, loved, and so on.

Performing solo on stage, Katese is a gifted storyteller. She is captivating and powerful, and commanded my full attention. She handles the brutality of the genocide with sensitivity and a resilient, enduring spirit. She bridges the gap between wanting (or needing) to forget unspeakable horrors, without forgetting the individuals who were lost, too.

Accompanying Katese on stage were projections: drawings, appearing alongside the letters read, depicting the subjects of the letters. These drawings were a wonderful aid in bringing the lost souls back into view. While hearing about a mother through the words of her son, and seeing a drawing of her likeness, I could, in my own way, imagine her essence.

Weaving throughout the show were songs performed by the first-ever Rwandan female drumming ensemble, Ingoma Nshya, started by Katese in 2004. Their songs were powerful and expressive, and I felt their collective spirits fill the room.

What I loved most of all in the performance was Katese herself. There she stood on stage, having inherited so much loss, and what she offers back to the world is a healing way forward.

This show is not a recounting of the history of the genocide, but rather, a reflection on the empty spaces that formed in Rwanda and its people, afterwards. The Book of Life breathes life back into those empty spaces. Filled with an enduring light, this show has encouraged me to approach loss differently: to embrace the individual who came before the loss. To remember life, after death.

Details

    • The Book of Life is playing until September 29, 2019 at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
    • Shows run Tuesday to Sunday, with performances at 8pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and 7pm on Friday
    • There are additional matinees on Wednesday at 1pm and Sunday at 2pm
    • Ticket prices range from $29 – $79
    • Tickets are availableĀ online, by phone at 416-368-3110, or in person at the box office

Photo of Odile Gakire Katese by Dahlia Katz