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


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.

First of all, I should say: I hadn’t intended to write critically about the work I saw at Toronto’s big summer theatre festivals, the Fringe and SummerWorks. These festivals provide spaces for experimentation and are full of young artists (like you and me) just starting to sort out their aesthetic and process. The more I saw shows at the Fringe in July, the more I felt it’d be wrong to treat that work the way I’d treat a play that’s had years of development through funded theatres, capped by a production with an institutional imprimatur.

Toronto’s true indie, i.e. low- to no-budget, theatre scene is marginal; to critique one of its offerings can feel a bit like claiming that a man singing off-key in the shower is taking our culture in the wrong direction. When I started this website, I thought I’d write about grassroots theatre only if I could be boosterish, draw attention to exceptional work that might otherwise get overlooked.

Then, in the week after I saw He Left Quietly, a couple of things happened. First, your production was a huge critical and popular success, crowned with the prestigious SummerWorks Festival’s highest prize. It became notable. At the same time, I grew mesmerized by the news coming out of Iraq, the public crucifixions and mass murders and attempted genocide of the Yazidi people by the upstart extremist group ISIS.

Even though, as you know, I think you’re a genius and one of my favourite theatre minds anywhere, and we’ve collaborated recently and I want only massive success for you, I was disturbed by the combination of your show’s wide acclaim and my experience of the world that week. More than disturbed: I found it quite depressing.

Why? Why feel demoralized by the success of a heartfelt theatrical testimony of one of apartheid’s survivors?

HERO-HLQ-crop-2-small-620x500Consider an early South African production of the play. In 2002, an audience sits in Pretoria, South Africa—the administrative capital, where the apartheid laws were written—and waits for He Left Quietly to begin. When the lights rise, Duma Kumalo, whose story the play recounts, is onstage. The man himself. He’s not alone up there, another performer plays his younger self and a third plays an unnamed white woman, but he anchors the storytelling; the story is his. It’s also the audience’s: no adult in that theatre can fail to have a personal relationship, and in most cases a fraught and emotional relationship, to the facts of apartheid. They own the story not in abstract, as members of the global human community (or some equally shaky construct), but as participants in a traumatic political experience that has touched their lives directly.

When the play speaks of the culpability of privileged people who stood by and ignored the wrongs done to their fellow men and women, it implicates concretely the South African audience seated in that room. When it compares this willful ignorance to that of German civilians in the Third Reich—a comparison that, true or false, is suspect for its sensationalism—the accusation is at least personal: the accused are present.

While this isn’t really drama, to my mind, not a dialogue of different positions—is instead univocal, tendentious, almost impossible to “disagree with,” one man’s unchallenged monologue—it’s certainly theatre. Hard to deny that it might have a restorative effect on a traumatized community of which it’s a document.

But what does it mean to revive that document in Toronto in 2014? Does this story, a detailed account of one man’s life on death row under apartheid, always mean the same things whenever and wherever it’s staged? Is it always and forever relevant?

One can argue that certain subjects, like apartheid South Africa, like the Holocaust, are inexhaustible, perpetually relevant, that we must keep telling these stories so that we “never forget” and are confirmed in our horror of barbaric violence, our presumed moral clarity. Yet how bizarre to sit in a North American theatre, in the middle of an audience stirred by this injunction to remember and thereby avoid a repeat of history’s horrors, and know that, days earlier, extremist militias in Iraq had scores of civilians buried alive.

Then I’m not just disturbed by the “never forget” justification for art, the notion that a work of art is automatically important if it describes a global atrocity, any atrocity, no matter how remote: then, when I consider the indifference of really existing mass murderers to this kind of generalized liberal gesture, I’m sickened by its futility and self-importance.

One might defend this work for its metaphorical power, claim that the testimony of a prisoner of apartheid South Africa has a metaphorical relevance to current world affairs. But I think this only makes the issue worse. Believe what you will about Israel and Gaza, for instance, call the Israeli occupation an apartheid situation if you must: it’s not the same situation as the one that existed in South Africa, and to imply otherwise is to reduce our specific understanding of both.

139092He Left Quietly claims repeatedly that “we are all culpable” for the events it describes, a claim that makes sense in its original, South African context. In Toronto, such a position is a posture. Either “we,” the audience, are in no meaningful sense culpable for the sufferings inflicted on Mr. Kumalo, or else we’re culpable for all suffering everywhere, and the selection of this particular instance seems rather arbitrary. If there’s a middle ground, a sense in which North Americans played an oblique role in the atrocities of apartheid, an economic or ideological connection between the West and the world of the play, this production doesn’t reveal it.

Perhaps this culpable “we” in your production, Leora, is no longer meant to encompass the audience, still refers only to South African bystanders of the time, but I don’t really believe that: why, for one thing, should we be asked to assemble scattered shoes onstage if we’re not among those implicated, not meant to feel like we’re part of the problem and part of the healing?

So we’re implicated, vaguely, made to feel vaguely guilty. We come away with some insight into the brutal workings of the apartheid South Africa penal system, but not into the deeper causes of apartheid—not, crucially, into the specifics of human character that shaped apartheid, made it possible, caused its collapse.

I’ve written this letter to you and not to the playwright, Yael Farber, because, like I mentioned to you on another occasion, I think you’re the author of the artwork I’m describing. I can’t fault the performance text that Ms. Farber made for herself and her community; my questions concern the new work that text has become, more than a decade later and half a world away, and what it means that we celebrate that work so robustly.

I think it means that we’re well intentioned and compassionate. And that we feel powerless and afraid and dwarfed by world events and unsure how to act and lazy, and relieved that, for a couple of hours, we can be taken care of and reassured by art: scolded, like children, for our wrongdoing (which is unspecified but, as far as we can tell, related to our laziness) and then forgiven, patted on the back by a story that reduces morality to an easy proposition and allows us to get easily on the right side of it.

I found your production’s ecstatic reception depressing because to me it reflects a desire, even among our country’s educated progressives, to hear a simplistic political consensus echoed and not challenged. To be handed answers and not encouraged to ask questions. To be moved by suffering, feel vaguely bad and guilty about it, and not look more deeply into the problems of character, spirit, and political structure that create it.

You and your team rendered He Left Quietly with clarity and elegance. The production announces your arrival as a gifted director, sensitive to actors and with a sharp eye for design.

I’m in the weird position of wanting the result of your show’s success—that people discover your huge talent, celebrate you—while sort of abhorring what the show’s success represents.

So I hope you’ll accept both my misgivings and my congrats.






7 thoughts on “Dear Leora Morris (Or, The Politics of Making Theatre About Terrible Things)

  1. aofford

    Hi Daniel,

    This is a really fascinating essay, and since I didn’t get a chance to see the production (insufficient-fund-related snafus have put me on a fairly restrictive culture-diet lately I’m not really in a position to agree or disagree with you (though, it seems like you’re not quite making an “argument” per se, so much as providing a really discursive rationale for an intense emotional reaction…is that splitting hairs?) Nevertheless, I’m just the eensiest bit too prone to pontificating to let such an incendiary piece pass me by without comment, so here’s my two cents’ worth.

    The point you bring up about the essentially abstracted quality of past atrocities as objects of political theatre is particularly limpid; I had a similar experience last summer watching Outside the March/Sheep No Wool/Convergence’s four-hour production of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play – the third act’s preoccupation with the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan just seemed to dodge the central issues of the rest of the piece, especially at a time when the current US president is a) a hugely telegenic, popular Democrat, and b) fighting at least two sort-of declared wars plus enlarging the US drone program to unprecedented degrees, conducting political assassination and suppressing journalism with more viciousness than all other past presidents combined.

    Like you, I was left just sort of feeling like the whole thing was a bit of distraction. The truth of the matter is, ultimately there are travesties in the world about which we can do something, and there are those about which we can’t. Travesties which occurred in the past- however recent – largely fall into the latter category (as Noam Chomsky would put it, we can feel bad about the crimes of Genghis Khan, but there isn’t any moral value in that). There are, perhaps, exceptions, such as paying reparations, &c. &c., but nevertheless the truth is that neither you and I, say, are old enough to have voted for any administration which tacitly (or otherwise) supported South Africa’s apartheid regime (I’d like to note, here, that for all the lefty-liberal bloviating about Prime Ministers past, it was Pierre Trudeau who kept schtum while Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, and Brian Mulroney who finally established official sanctions against South Africa). Ditto for Vietnam, or even the first Iraq War.

    So yes, there’s a weird tension between the – as you say – “Never Forget”-type play and the political play: the first seems more parableish in ethos and affect, while the second appears to be motivated by a desire to effect actual action on the part of the audience. I would argue that even most forms of political satire end up bearing more similarity to the former than the latter. It’s unclear what pieces like Passion Play’s third act or He Left Quietly (assuming it is as you describe it, which I grant it may not be) want the audience to do other than conclude that war and racism are bad.

    Here’s the question then: if plays dealing with atrocities past are abstracted in this way, what can – if anything – artists do to recontextualize them so as to better build consciousness about the world now? Must He Left Quietly only be about South African apartheid? How radical does the reinterpretive process have to be – or how much time has to pass – before history becomes myth and historical figures become characters as available to interpretation as Hamlet or Hedda?

    In other words, is it even possible for a play like He Left Quietly – or for that matter, The Laramie Project, Fires in the Mirror, or My Name is Rachel Corrie – to be about anything other than what it’s just literally about without burying it in a few hundred years of aesthetico-historicist dialectic? (“Aesthetico-histo…?” Really, Alexander, you have to go to bed…)

    I realize I’m sort of free-associating about a whole bunch of ideas you touch on in this essay. I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence – this is why, in this instance, I restrict myself to commenting only, rather than blogging my own self.

    Interesting read – really enjoyed it. Keep it up.

    Alexander Offord

    • I’m glad you’re making and writing about art in Toronto, Alexander Offord. I think you’re right that the key to deepening/justifying this kind of political theatre is in the interpretative approach, and I don’t think it’s ever “too soon” to insist that a piece be adapted to bring it into dialogue with a changed world. I’d love to see more work that seems to be conscious of, even self-conscious about, its reasons for existing right now — that inscribes those reasons on the work. Which is an abstraction, and hard to do, I know. And probably requires a big paradigm shift, in our text-reverent culture (and I say this as a playwright). But I think your questions are really important ones.

  2. Trevor Schwellnus

    Hi Daniel –

    I can’t comment on He Left Quietly, unfortunately – I took in 15 shows at Summerworks and it was a trick to squeeze that much in. I regret it missing it very much, especially now.

    But I can comment on political theatre that plays to audiences out of context.

    As you point out, “testimonial plays” have an incredible power on stage – they use it as a public forum to speak truth, to create a pool of witnesses to injustice. Sometimes it is even a true communal catharsis – I’m thinking of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, and how they preceded Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission around the country, playing in town squares about raw issues that people were still afraid to speak about in public, at a time when they would soon be called upon to do just that.
    I think about Tramaluna, a group from Colombia who partner with displaced women to speak out from the stage against the violence they and their families have lived through – they had all lost loved ones in their flight to the big city – and even named names… It was chilling to watch, because the things they were saying could likely lead to a death threat, or worse. The theatre, built for 400, held over 500 people that night, and everyone – even our little team of four, in from Toronto – was an important, appreciated witness. The beautiful thing about these pieces is that they are also very engaging theatre, masterfully woven together with professionals and first-timers.

    Reading your blog, I ask myself, could we remount them here? The testimonial that speaks truth to power in Colombia or fosters communal healing in Peru definitely becomes something different in Canada.

    But if it moves people, why not? It is a re-purposing, absolutely, but the audience would know that. You knew that when you sat down for He Left Quietly. What is not mentioned in your account is your responsibility as a member of the audience. In the context of Summerworks, you were given an opportunity to feel the position of a South African oppressor from the Apartheid era. It is an ugly gift. You didn’t like it – no surprise, I wouldn’t either. But I’m fascinated that you have a problem with this kind of moral displacement.

    So – did you actually move the shoes? Because you could have simply refused.

    • Thanks for this, Trevor. The South American work you describe sounds incredibly powerful. I don’t have a problem with repurposing work, as you put it; I just think the new purpose has to be a worthy one, and I wasn’t convinced that was the case here, for the reasons I work through in my essay. The audience wasn’t held “responsible” in any meaningful sense (I felt it was completely let off the hook), nor was it in any way made to feel the position of a South African oppressor (that’d be interesting). I probably agree with you in general — totally down for some moral displacement — but not in the specific context of this show. And no, I didn’t move the shoes.

  3. Daniel and others,

    My friend pointed me to this discussion and I’m glad to have read it. I’m currently writing a book with the title ‘Staging Strangers: Theatre & Global Ethics’, and it’s basically about the subject of this thread. In the language I use in the book, it’s about examining the ethical relationships at play in theatre addressing big global 21st century issues. Ethics means multiple things: it’s about what sorts of ‘choice’ is presented by the theatre, who gets to choose, but it’s also about ‘difference’ in terms of culture, values, and so on.

    I regret not seeing He Left Quietly because it sounds like it would’ve given me a lot to talk about (I did see The Container and the Stranger, each of which were fascinating in their way). But Daniel, the problem you are bravely voicing is a problem I have found many times in my theatregoing experiences in Toronto in the last decade, specifically in the kind of ‘political’ theatre I’m interested in: that one feels that the representation or experience is more ‘moral’ than ‘ethical’, meaning that it is celebrating and prescribing certain values and perspectives rather than trying to crack open any meaningful conversation about them. The theatre scholars Helen Lo and Jacqueline Gilbert have a nice shorthand for this: they worry about situations where audiences go to the theatre to ‘publicly enact their shame’.

    I tend to beat up on poetic-realist styles of theatre where the audience is asked to sit in the dark and bear witness, not because these aesthetics are worn and tired here in Canada–which I feel they are–but because I think they also come with damaging, lazy and unhelpful ideas about culture and history that ultimately serve to just affirm the audiences pre-existing opinions rather than challenge them. But as you note in your example with the shoes, gestures toward participation and other modes of engagement are hardly a solution.

    I don’t have a ‘solution’ – there isn’t one – but would only offer to the conversation a distinction between the moral and ethical: the moral, I think, is a mode that prescribes certain perspectives, makes assumptions for its audience, and, at an extreme, calculates a ‘straw audience’; The ethical, on the other hand, is about the process of deliberation, conversation, about the nature of issues and how to address them. The ethical is uncertain, and difficult. How either may or may not transfer into the realm of real politics is another matter altogether, but as Trevor notes, in some contexts, theatre artists really are managing to implicate themselves in important, public political debates around issues of global ethics (check out Reverend Billy, if you don’t know him already). Do theatre artists want to create work that’s moral or ethical? And what do audiences want?


  4. Hi Daniel,

    I think it’s good of you to write your questions about this work, and it’s absolutely necessary to criticize independent artists if you believe the work of independent artists to be potentially meaningful.

    I thought about He Left Quietly a lot when I was on the selection jury for S-Works. On balance, I’m happy it was part of the festival, and I’m happy that Leora and her collaborators got a chance to work on it. But I was and I am really ambivalent about the play itself, and while I was curious to see whether the company managed to break it apart and remake it, I was skeptical enough about the chances to prioritize seeing other work. Another way of saying this: I didn’t feel like I needed to see any of this performed.

    Barry Freeman’s comment about the ethical and the moral introduces some very useful language Practically though, artists say what they say – either resist or indulge their indignation, reveal themselves and their positions – through their engagements with form, and their strategies for making what they make.

    To paraphrase Brian Massumi and a lot of other people, the big picture of the world is basically paralyzing, but that doesn’t prevent there being lots of opportunities to experiment and make things better in one’s own immediate situation. Moralism, which Canadian theatre is so big on, is a response to the paralysis of the big picture and a forgetting of the fact that theatre is already an immediate situation, that it can be a good place for such experiment.

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