Odile Gakire Katese silently makes her way to the stage minutes before the lights in Festival Hall dim down.
Dressed in a navy dress and turban to match, she takes a seat on a beige chair in the center of the stage. On either side of the playwright, members of Ingoma Nysha, Rwanda’s first women drumming company, slowly joins her on stage in pairs.
Meanwhile, Katese writes on a notepad — an item that becomes important at the end of the show. She’s crumpling up paper and throwing them on the ground. As the lights finally dim, the powerful harmonies of the Ingoma Nysha fill the theater, singing in their native tongue.
Katese begins The Book of Life by reading a letter from a perpetrator of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which about 800,000 people were slaughtered, expressing shame in their actions.
“What can I do? What can I say,” Katese reads.
As Katese reads the letters, projections are shown on a screen behind her. The illustrations represent the stories shared through the letters, ranging from a brother asking his younger siblings if he was calling his name when he had died to the daughter of a perpetrator trying to make sense of her father’s actions.
There’s a great balance of light and dark throughout The Book of Life. Thanks to the breaks between each letter as Katese recounts the indigenous folktale, “Grandmother Spider,” changing the inflections of her voice for each animal and using her body to emulate each.
The drummers help push the story along with their soulful voices and serve as an echo for Katese — making the audience laugh during certain parts.
Halfway through the 75-minute show Katese asks the audience to draw their grandfathers by memory on a half sheet of paper given at the door. After collecting every drawing, Katese, with the help of the drummers, chose their favorite grandfather and project the winning picture on the screen. The rest are put in baskets at the door, and the audience is encouraged to bring home a new grandfather.
Near the end of The Book of Life, Katese returns the notepad, reading a letter she wrote to her late grandmother, whom she had never met. She expresses how she wishes to have known her, sharing a small detail her mother had told her.
“I was left to live to tell these stories for my children,” said Katese, while holding an illustration of her grandmother.
Katese is a vessel for the stories, using the stage as a platform to share the stories of Rwandans still recovering from the genocide. The Book of Life is the beginning of changing how the genocide is remembered for future generations.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: Remaining shows are 6 p.m., June 2; 2 p.m., June 3; and 7 p.m., June 4 in Festival Hall, 56 Beaufain St. Tickets range from $40 to $73.
Tania Ortiz is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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