We want to make a habit of being together. This is what we are trying to do with this festival. To create a habit of presence.
Such is how Erik Ehn addressed the international collection of artists who, at the beginning of the Centre x Centre Theatre festival, formed a circle in a concrete-floored rehearsal space at Ishyo Arts Center in Kigali, Rwanda.
Today, we will accomplish a lot. We will create work in workshops, and we will hear and see each other’s work in readings and performances. But in many ways we have already achieved what we set out to do, simply by making this circle.
Centre x Centre is a performance festival held annually in Kigali, Rwanda. It was collaboratively conceived three years ago by Hope Azeda of Mashirika Performing Arts, Carole Karemera of Ishyo Arts Center, Jean-Pierre Karegeye of the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, and Erik Ehn, then of California Institute of the Arts, now of Brown U.
Jean-Pierre routinely describes the first iteration of the festival as a disaster. This year’s was larger than the last, and more fully east African, with artists from Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. To continue the list: South Africa, Sweden, USA, Canada, France, Israel, Palestine, Senegal… I’m sure I’m forgetting some.
Finding ourselves here, together, in Rwanda, is an unbelievable thing. Our collective meeting deserves celebration.
But as this festival grows into itself, its nature, in addition to its existence, demands consideration. The opportunity to share work, method, and thought transcontinentally is powerful, especially in a present-day Rwanda that both thirsts for and struggles with new cultural production. Rwanda is simultaneously a deeply fertile and barren place to be an artist. Bringing international work here, and making Rwanda into one ‘centre’ begins to fill a kind of void and shine a light on what is already happening here. As the festival continues to grow its shape may need to change – perhaps three packed days and nights of readings, performances, and workshops become a more leisurely week. Or a festival committee accepts entries far in advance and makes difficult choices about how to distill mountains of important work into two stellar nights that push the festival forward in philosophy and virtuosity.
Boubacar “Boris” Diop, a Senegalese writer, facilitated a discussion that began with his novel Murambi (borne out of a trip to Rwanda after the genocide with a group of ten African writers seeking to respond artistically to ’94. Murambi is an unfinished school in which 50,000 people were killed in less than half a day, today an increasingly institutionalized memorial). Conversation flowed freely and shifted to questions of textual integrity and performative liberties (To what extent can actors improvise? Can improvisation happen without veering from the text? Does faithfulness to text create duplicate performances?) Also: how expressive are Rwandan audiences? Many local performers suggested that they are, on the whole, fairly inexpressive. Clapping is a relatively new phenomenon. Laughter happens, but in sad moments women actively hold back tears and men scratch their heads. An interesting angle from which to consider “freedom of expression”…
The Comedy Knights: a very new Kigali comedy troupe. Tight sketches, fantastic physicality, sharp and witty subject matter... to be watched.
Cooking Oil: The reading of this play by Ugandan writer Deborah Asiimwe opened up a conversation about the omnipresence of international aid in the form of cooking oils, expired medicines, strange nutrient biscuits, mosquito nets. What are the other ways in which “aid” disguises itself, dehumanizes, forces itself down peoples throats ? As artists we can’t depoliticize ourselves or operate with a sense of immunity / in a space of isolation.
Art is/can be transformative/hierarchical/empowering/neocolonial