Courtesy The Book of Life

As early as 2009 when she received the first of more than 500 letters from fellow Rwandans, Odile Gakire Katese knew she wanted to create a stage production. What she hadn’t planned was performing the show herself.

The Book of Life, the one-woman Spoleto Festival USA show inspired by Katese’s years-long project, focuses on finding a way to remember the lives lost in the 1994 Rwandan genocide while bringing life and peace to a still-hurting country. It incorporates music and songs throughout the show.

“I understood that reconciliation was not only with people or between perpetrators and survivors, but we also needed to reconcile with our pasts, with the wounds, with death,” Katese said in an interview. “So that both the living and dead rest in peace.”

Almost three decades after the genocide, in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda is held up as a model for reconciliation. In the aftermath, the government used the gacaca court system’s traditional dispute resolution forum to bring perpetrators face to face with victims of the genocide and the general community to confess and ask for forgiveness. 

The punishment for perpetrators ranged from years in prison to community service. In the end, the process allowed victims to speak their truth in a public manner. 

Katese collected letters from students, widows and orphans, asking them to write about their loved ones with specific accounts of who they were and what they missed about them.

Having been born and raised in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Katese never had a chance to meet her family, most of whom died in the genocide. Her first encounters with them took place at memorial sites around Rwanda, she said. The playwright and performer wanted to find a symbolic way to reconnect with them and keep their spirit alive. Often, when people talk about victims of the genocide, it’s always about how they died, not who they were, Katese said.

“I needed to meet them first before I started mourning them,” she said.

The Book of Life director and co-creator Ross Manson said he knew from the early planning stages that Katese, whom he described as a captivating speaker and an incredible thinker, was the perfect person to perform the show. 

“I don’t think there was any way it could have been anything else,” Manson said.

Katese struggled to find an actress willing to commit to the role. Many of the actresses she had in mind declined because they felt the idea of “talking to the dead was strange and not adhering to religious values,” which isn’t the show’s focus, she said.

The Book of Life has four story threads: the collection of letters, songs, Katese’s own story and the indigenous tale of Spider Grandmother, which also serves as the narrative glue tying the threads together.

While the folklore behind Spider Grandmother differs among each indigenous tribe, she is typically seen as the source of life — human and animal — that connects all tribes and people with her web. Manson said this iteration of the tale takes place in Rwanda, including animals native to the country.

“But when Ross brought the story of the grandmother spider, I was like: What is the relationship with this, with our story?” Katese said. “It was not obvious. I was shocked that it was not obvious at first to me.”

Drumming ensemble joins Katese on stage

Although Katese is the sole performer of The Book of Life, she is not alone on stage. She is backed by Ingoma Nysha, an all-women drumming ensemble that she formed in 2004. The 17 drummers help amplify Katese’s voice throughout the show with background vocals and intense drumming.

Ingoma Nysha is incorporated into the show’s narrative. When they begin to drum, Katese steps away from the spotlight to give them their moment. They tell the stories together, she said.

“They are also survivors of the genocide,” Katese said. “They are also one piece of the answer in that quest of peace and joy and reconciliating with life.”

Only women take the stage in The Book of Life, which Katese said is not a coincidence. A lot of her work is focused on giving women a platform and a voice, an opportunity that is scarce in Rwanda. 

“It was a project of women giving back life to the people,” Katese said. “They fit in the project since it’s all about resilience, reconciliation and growing life, growing peace. And we know how to do this.”

IF YOU PLAN TO GO: 7:30 p.m., June 1; 6 p.m., June 2; 2 p.m., June 3; and 7 p.m., June 4.   Location: Festival Hall, 56 Beaufain St. Tickets range from $40 to $73. 

Tania Ortiz is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.