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Odile Garike (Kiki) Katese in The Book of Life.

Dahlia Katz

  • Title: The Book of Life
  • Written and Performed by: Odile Gakire Katese
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Ross Manson
  • Companies: Volcano Theatre, Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sept. 29

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The Book of Life opens both Canadian Stage’s 33rd season and the first one to be programmed by its new artistic director, Brendan Healy. That had me casting my mind back nine years, to when Healy began his previous tenure at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Back then, the director announced himself with a powerful production of Blasted, British playwright Sarah Kane’s gut-twisting confrontation of violence and trauma. It’s a play partly inspired by the atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian war.

This time, with The Book of Life, Healy has chosen a work about the 1990s Rwandan genocide, but in all other respects it couldn’t be more different. An exercise in healing, this gentle one-woman show by Rwanda’s Odile Gakire (Kiki) Katese seeks to look past the horror her country endured 25 years ago and celebrate the lives that were lost.

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As many as a million Rwandans died in the genocide, most of them the minority Tutsi, when, in the space of 100 days during the spring of 1994, their Hutu countrymen butchered them in an unimaginable frenzy of slaughter. But that outrage, its origins and aftermath have already been written about extensively. Katese doesn’t want to rehash its history, but instead to in some way unmake it, by returning all those corpses to the people they once were. As she says at one point, she wants to “open the tombs and embrace the dead.”

Her means for doing that is a project, initiated 10 years ago, in which she asks survivors of the genocide – not only Rwandans who lost family, but also those who participated in the mass murder – to write letters to those who died.

The Book of Life is one of Katese's various projects aimed at helping her homeland recover from its bloody legacy.

Dahlia Katz

Her show, which she wrote and performs, is partly made up of excerpts from these letters. There are some remorseful accounts by witnesses who couldn’t stop a family member’s death, but just as many that draw upon happy memories to paint a portrait of the deceased’s life. She also has a personal motive – Katese, who was living in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo during the genocide, lost many branches of her family tree in Rwanda and is trying to reconstruct her ancestry.

The Book of Life, produced by Toronto’s Volcano Theatre in association with Katese’s Woman Cultural Centre of Rwanda (and another Toronto company, Why Not Theatre), is one of her various projects aimed at helping her homeland recover from its bloody legacy. She has also founded a women’s drumming circle, Ingoma Nshya, the first of its kind in Rwanda, as well as the country’s first ice cream parlour, a story told in the 2012 documentary Sweet Dreams.

Katese touches on these accomplishments in a warm, intimate show that’s loosely shaped and relies a good deal on her appealing stage presence. What acting she does is found in her playful telling of an animal folk tale that she weaves through her narrative as an allegory.

There’s audience participation, too. Entering the theatre (Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street venue – now renamed for donors Marilyn and Charles Baillie), we’re handed paper and a pencil along with our program. Sure enough, midway through, Katese takes her cue from Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and asks us to draw – not a sheep, but I won’t spoil things and tell you.

Her collaborator and director, Volcano’s Ross Manson, provides a staging of studied simplicity. The set is a few sticks of African-style furniture suggesting a living room. Sean Frey and Kristine White’s back-projection design is a throwback to the classroom, with simple hand drawings on transparencies, manipulated behind the screen by White. The 19 women of Ingoma Nshya are present – in a recorded score, singing and drumming thrillingly to music by Mutangana Moise.

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If not always as compelling as it should be, The Book of Life is a work filled with love and hope.

That’s a still great way to start a season.

The Book of Life continues to Sept. 29. (canadianstage.com)

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