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Truth in Translation tours the Balkans
October 13, 2008
By Ginanne Brownell

The parallels are making the audience shift awkwardly in their seats. “A human being’s bones do not just disappear,” wails Mrs. Mtimkhulu, explaining her need to find where her murdered son is buried. As she writhes at the front of the stage, overhead on a makeshift screen made up of dozens of shirts, archival footage rolls of bodies being exhumed from the ground. Another character steps towards her and asks if she can forgive the people who killed her child. She pauses and then answers in a strong, low voice: “Not today.”

Though Truth in Translation, which tells the story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) through the eyes of the translators, is disturbing theatre for anyone, for this Belgrade crowd it has a poignant echo of the country’s recent turbulent history. As the lights go down for the interval the audience takes a collective pause and then they clap and clap.

Bringing a show about reconciliation to the Balkans was never going to be an easy task. “I wanted to bring the play here because everyone said it wouldn’t work and that no one would listen,” says the director Michael Lessac. But so far he’s proved the naysayers wrong. This is the third stop on the play’s tour of the Balkans — in Bosnia they performed under the shadow of the historic bridge in Mostar and also in Tuzla — and after Serbia they move on to Croatia and Kosovo before finishing their five-week tour in Sarajevo on October 21. Though the play definitely touches a nerve in this region that has still not come to terms with horrors that happened during the 1990s, audiences have so far been rapt and engaged.

The idea for the play came out of a conversation that Lessac, an American theatre and television director of shows such as Taxi and Everybody Loves Raymond, had with a friend who felt he should do a play about forgiveness. “At first I said to him ‘I don’t do that s*** ,’” he recalls. But Lessac started reading up on the TRC and when he came across a touching line about the translators, he knew he had found his subject. Starting in 2001 Lessac and his wife Jackie spent two years flying back and forth from the US to South Africa for research. “Because there was a negotiated settlement for a truth commission looking into the crimes during Apartheid, a bloodbath was avoided,” says Jackie. “That is a moment that needs to be celebrated because sometimes the cycle of revenge just goes on and on.” They spent over a month watching footage of the TRC hearings, held workshops with the translators and befriended Max du Preez who was the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s presenter during the trials (he now serves as an advisor to the show).

The concept for Truth in Translation, which won a Fringe First award in Edinburgh last year, has never been just about performing a play. Lessac wanted to take the show to places where there had been conflict and use it as a tool to get people talking. Debuting in Kigali, Rwanda in 2006 the show has traveled through South Africa, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and now the Balkans (the show has also played in America and Sweden). After each performance, there is a talkback with the actors and there are also workshops, organized by local NGOs, which bring together former warring sides. The drama that comes out of these workshops at times rivals the actual onstage action. Du Preez says that during a workshop in Kigali one young woman stood up and told how during the war she saw her neighbors kill her parents and her siblings, yet she still lives next door to them and is friends with their children. “She told me that sometimes the bitterness and hardness get to be too much for her so she asks these friends—the perpetrators’ children—to line up against the wall so she can shout at them and when she is done they make peace again,” du Preez recalls. “She said to me, ‘You white people in South Africa have to stand still sometimes and let your black compatriots vent their frustrations because it has to come out and you have to stand there and take it.”

Never before have the cast been dependent on the use of subtitles. Places such as Mitrovica in Kosovo have had to be scrapped because of security concerns. They have also had to tread very carefully on topics surrounding mass graves and ethnic cleansing; the workshop in Tuzla had to be tightly monitored by a psychiatrist because there were victims who were participating. “I have the sense that people are really listening,” says Ashleigh Harvey, one of the actresses. “Everybody says they connect with the piece and they can see their own country in the story of South Africa.” As they have with their other tours, they are filming their trip around the Balkans because Lessac hopes to make full length documentary about the show. Though there are no specific plans yet for another tour Jackie says she could see them taking the show to places like Sierra Leone and Israel. “We don’t expect to solve the world’s problems,” she says. “But if some young kid is inspired in the course of our travels that is what you can hope for.”


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