Features Published 11 May 2015

Radical Identification

US playwright Ken Urban on the inspiration behind his play about the Rwandan genocide, Sense of an Ending.
Ken Urban

When I started Sense of an Ending over a decade ago, it was because I had read Philip Gourevitch’s book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. I knew the basic details of the 1994 genocide, but reading that book haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the details of the massacres that took place in Catholic churches. Shortly after finishing the book – this was 2001 or so – I started following the stories of the so-called “killer nuns of Rwanda” who were tried in Belgium for the role in a church massacre.

I was raised Catholic and had attended twelve years of Catholic school. I had long since abandoned my faith and I have little use for religion. But there was something about seeing the faces of those nuns. Again, the only word I can think of is haunted. They haunted me. I was pretty firm in my belief that I would never write a play about Catholicism, but I couldn’t resist.

If I told other writers that they should write the very play they didn’t think they could or should, I must take the same advice. I started writing a play about a journalist interviewing two nuns who were about to stand trial for their perceived role in the Rwandan genocide. It took me a long time to get a solid draft of the play. I felt overwhelmed by the research that I had done, and it was a few years into the project that I realized why. I was too beholden to the research, to the actual biographies of the nuns. The play only really took off after I started imagining my nuns as totally removed from what I had read about in the newspapers. Again, I looked at my Catholic education, and found inspiration in the Stations of the Cross, the graphic depiction of the death of Jesus. The goal when you meditate on the images in the Stations of the Cross is to imagine his suffering; you put yourself in his place and experience empathy for him. That is, of course, what theatre asks of us: to identify radically with the characters in the play.

It was that realization that cracked open the play for me. Charles, the journalist, had to identify and then become one of the men and women trapped in the church when the militias came. The other issues facing Charles – that is, determining the truth, and what it means to be a stranger reporting facts when you have an agenda or outside pressures – all that developed as a result of telling his story. I was never conscious of engaging in a tradition of plays about journalism or war photography. I can only write when I get out of my head.

Before I would write the play, I would watch interviews with genocide survivors, their eyes so empty because of what they had seen; they lived through, but never recovered from what they had experienced. I would watch until I was physically ill and then begin work on the play. It was my way to honor them. I know in the eyes of some, it is a bold choice to make Charles a black man. It felt and still feels to me that the story of a white man going to Africa is a story told too many times. And Charles’s sense of isolation, that he sees himself as an African-American, while Paul and the nuns see him solely as an American, is important to his journey in the play. In a weird way, I know that experience. I grew up in a family that was deeply racist and I knew, one day, the hateful language that they used against black men and women would be used on me because I was gay. I was right. That’s why I am a writer because I want to identify with people who are not me, to tell stories about those characters. It is as important to write about what you both do and don’t know. I am not convinced a play says anything to an audience. But I do hope the play does open a discussion afterwards.

Main image: Sense of an Ending in rehearsal. Photo: Jack Sain 

Ken Urban’s Sense of an Ending is at Theatre 503, London, from 12th May – 6th June 2015

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