Dear Leora Morris (Or, The Politics of Making Theatre About Terrible Things)

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fb_event_660514647369284_jpg_590x9000_q95Dear Leora,

“Audience participation” is rare these days in theatre for adults, but there’s a striking instance of it in your staging of Yael Farber’s play He Left Quietly, which won the Outstanding Production jury prize at Toronto’s SummerWorks Performance Festival last week.

After we witness the monologue of one Duma Kumalo, who tells us of his life on death row in apartheid-era South Africa for a crime he didn’t commit, members of the audience are called onstage to match pairs of old shoes—shoes, we understand, stripped from prisoners whom the unjust regime murdered.

It’s a powerful moment in your clear, spare production, which is anchored by the detailed and natural performances you’ve drawn from your three actors. As a theatrical gesture, it involves your audience both as itself and as a stand-in for South Africa’s privileged bystanders to apartheid’s crimes. It suggests the audience’s culpability, however passive, for those crimes, as well as its power to repair or at least ease the traumas of the past. At the performance I attended, it created a palpable stir in the house.

It also made me quite angry. In the time since I saw your show, I’ve tried to unpack why.

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