Rwandan troupe investigates societies’ failures


I n 1994, Hutu militias began the systematic genocide of the Tutsi people of Rwanda. In just 100 days, an estimated 1 million people had been butchered and whole families, villages and towns destroyed. Once Tutsi rebels regrouped and took control of the unstable country, many of the Hutus responsible fled into Democratic Republic of Congo, where they continue to wreak havoc among local villages.

How would you deal with these atrocities? How would you continue to live your life? For performer and director Dorcy Rugamba, whose family was massacred on the first day of the genocide, you make it your mission in life to show and educate people about the events through theater. As Rugamba said, in a telephone interview with The Japan Times: “I had a great necessity to say something about Rwanda and this world. Theater was a way to survive.”

His troupe, Urwintore, bring their production of “The Investigation” to Yokohama’s BankART Studio NYK this week. Written by acclaimed German playwright Peter Weiss, of “Marat/Sade” fame, “The Investigation” was based on the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials. Seeing the play performed by a European company in 1999, Rugamba was shocked by the startling similarities between his experiences and the accounts by survivors and executioners involved in the horrors of the concentration camps.

“I was moved as a Rwandan, he says. “It was like my country — the killers even said the same words.”

His choice of production that deals with a part of German history was made “to help Rwandans to explain the matter of genocide through this subject.” The verbatim documentary play, written in 1964, tells the story of the war-crimes trials and the people involved in them. From judges and eyewitnesses to survivors and perpetrators, the audience sees the way in which people very rarely share the same views of the same events.

In the Urwintore production the seven actors play multiple characters, both witnesses and defendants. “The Investigation” exposes the denial of many of the former Nazi guards and civilians. For the Rwandan performers and audiences, this is a chilling reminder that many of the genocide leaders — who are currently members of the notorious FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) based in Congo — repudiate the claims made against them.

For the Rwandan director, who has worked with legendary theater creator Peter Brook in 2004’s “Tierno Bokar,” the play is about what happens after a genocide, not genocide itself. In Rwanda, local communities have established gacaca — courts to hear testimony of survivors and deal with justice. Rugamba says that the play “makes a link between the two trials.” Just as the Auschwitz hearings exposed the truth and was a message to the watching world, the Rwandan courts and the production are a plea for global recognition of the events and for assistance.

“We have to find a solution to the problems and the international community has to help us,” Rugamba says.

The play has toured Rwanda, Belgium, France and England, all to critical acclaim, and after Japan will set off for Spain and the United States. Michael Billington, a critic for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, said of a line in the production, “the society that produced the (Auschwitz) camps is our society,” that “those words have an obvious application to Rwanda. And they help to explain the evening’s shattering power.”

Urwintore’s production of how society deals with war crimes is of added significance in Japan in light of the recent furor over Chinese filmmaker Li Ying’s controversial documentary “Yasukuni.” The Shinto shrine in Tokyo venerates Japan’s war dead, including some convicted war criminals.

The production (in French with Japanese subtitles) is a timely reminder of past events in Germany, Congo, the former Yugoslavia and more recently in Darfur. The program notes encapsulate how important this story is: “This play is our gateway to questioning this world which permits such genocides to continue to be committed with such indifference.”

“The Investigation” is at BankART Studio NYK in Yokohama on May 23 at 7 p.m., May 24 at 5 p.m. and May 25 at 2 p.m.; tickets are ¥3,000-¥3,500 in advance. For more information call (045) 663-2812 or visit