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While NYC wilted in the sticky, sweltering weeks of early July, twelve fortunate members of the SPS Master of Arts in Applied Theatre program (eight students, three faculty members, and Linda Key, a MAAT alumna who returned to Rwanda as a Fulbright Specialist) spent seventeen dry and temperate days and nights in Kigali, Rwanda. This was the fourth such annual venture, a partnership between SPS/MAAT and the Kigali Institute of Education through which K IE undergraduate drama majors receive practical training in such areas as play-building, teaching through theater, and Theater of the Oppressed, and CUNY graduate students hone their skills as teachers and facilitators and absorb the transformative culture, beauty, and contradictions that are present-day Rwanda.
In 2010 Rwanda was still digging out from under the psychic, social, and political rubble of the 1994 genocide that killed up to a million citizens and catapulted this tiny, lush, and previously obscure nation onto the world stage. With unprecedented candor, Rwandans remember the slaughter and pay tribute to the dead with local and national memorials, in village churches and roadside monuments, and at the Genocide Memorial Museum in the capital. Many of these sites include underground crypts and display skeletal remains, clothing, ID cards, rosary beads, and other personal belongings of the victims so that history cannot be denied. Pledges of “Never Again” appear on signage. Alongside remembrance and mourning, Rwandans pursue justice and reconciliation, a 21st Century economy, and universal education.
In 2010, the Rwandan Education Board added drama to the national curriculum, believing that it could be a vehicle for national dialogue. KIE, the central teacher-training institution, initiated a drama major. But Rwandan performance tradition consists mainly of music and dance. There is no national theater or body of dramatic literature, and few Rwandans were trained in acting, directing, or playwriting. The KIE curriculum was based in the theoretical study of other theater traditions, primarily European, until a fortuitous connection brought KIE and CUNY together in the summer of 2010.
This summer, KIE students who were in their first year of study in 2010 are graduating. They worked consistently with MAAT founding faculty Chris Vine (Academic Program Director) and Helen White (Director of the CAT Youth Theatre) every summer and credit them with revolutionizing their ideas about the power of theater and helping them acquire the skills and confidence to create meaningful performances with and for a wide variety of school and community participants. They are the first cohort of Rwandan students to have served their teaching internships as drama specialists, and they will be the first professional drama teachers. My role this summer was to observe the program and begin to assess its impact now that the first KIE-CUNY cohort is ready to move on to professional careers.
What I saw and heard was nothing short of remarkable. In ten intense days, the KIE-CUNY collaborators performed Forum Theater about sexual harassment in the workplace, corruption and gender discrimination in hiring, alcoholism, and domestic abuse; and the plight of orphans and stepchildren (hundreds of thousands of children lost parents in the genocide); analyzed and dramatized Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred”; created scenes with props and fabric and their bodies; and rehearsed and performed two plays for a public audience of approximately two hundred. Creating together fused the KIE and CUNY groups, enabling us to share artistic, academic, and personal stories and concerns.
Rwanda is re-creating itself. As Professor Vine said, on behalf of SPS and CUNY at our closing celebration with KIE students, faculty, and administration, “We are honored to have played a very small part in this remarkable transformation.”
Check out the Project Rwanda Blog for a daily recap and reflection.
Piper Anderson is a 2011 graduate of the CUNY SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program. She is currently the Director of Education & Artist Development at Young Audiences New York. She is also a performance artist, writer, educator, and life coach. Below is her reflection on the question “Where are you from?” based on time spent in Rwanda working at the Kigali Institute of Education.
The busy stretch of road from the Kigali Institute of Education to Hotel Civitas is about a 20-minute walk on a narrow sidewalk. J’nelle and I slowed our pace and fell into step together similarly feeling reflective and inspired by all that we were seeing and experiencing in our brief time in Rwanda. Sharing our growing expertise in Applied Theatre was exciting. Learning about a new country and the ways Rwandans were finding creative solutions to the call for reconciliation and healing was powerful and confirmed the deep resonate value of our work. But there was another layer to this trip that I wasn’t quite expecting: “Where are you from?”
It’s a question that I get on Brooklyn streets or the Walmart in small town USA. But when an African asks me this question while standing in a school yard surrounded by the lush hills of the Rwandan country side, I’m not quite sure where to begin. “I’m from the U.S.,” but of course that’s not useful. Africans move to the U.S. all the time seeking opportunities, an escape, a new beginning. The question is not where you ended up. No, where are you from? Where do you begin? So I began with what I knew of my history. I began with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Which for many Rwandans sounded like some legend, some Grimms tale used to trick naïve children into obedience; it couldn’t possibly be true. But I told the story again and again with the certainty that hours spent in my small public library after school reading every volume on that one bookcase devoted to African American literature. That history finally came in handy on the streets and in the schoolyards where I met people in Rwanda. But my facts seemed to leave more questions than answers and each conversation left me feeling more and more displaced.
Where do I begin? I may never know. Dr. John Henrik Clark says, “History is not everything, but it is a starting point… It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.” So as J’nelle and I walked along that Kigali road we began to hatch a plan to explore our being, our being a part of the African Diaspora. Our thesis project took the shape of one amazingly simple, complex question: “What does it mean to be part of a Diaspora?” We returned to the states and to our final year in the M.A. in Applied Theatre program and began structuring a creative gathering for a diverse group of Black women artists to explore this question. Our exploration took the shape of a devised theatre piece called “The Offering.” In April of 2011, The Diaspora Project performed “The Offering” at The Brecht Forum in New York City.
When we reconvened the women who participated in the project for a final reflection, there was an urgent desire to continue creating. What we had created together had become a vital means of generating radical material that challenged perceptions of Black women and revealed the complexity of our identities. We wanted to do more. We wanted to create a theatre company and so we did. On September 18, 2011 Re-writes of Passage Ensemble Theatre was born in my Harlem apartment. This is where we get to define our existence. This is the re-writing of our passage. Where we get to decide who we must BE. To learn more about our company visit www.rewritesensemble.com.
Today was our final day in Rwanda. After two weeks of working, we took the day off to relax and unwind by Lake Kivu in Kibuye (roughly a three hour ride West of Kigali). The views were incredible, and we were able to take many stunning photographs, both of the lake and the beautiful Rwandan countryside. We also visited a picturesque church in Kibuye that was the site of a massacre during the 1994 genocide. Although there was a small memorial to the more than 11,000 people who died there, the church still functions and runs Sunday services.
Having such a lovely and soothing last day here has made it no less easy to leave. After only a short time apart from them, I already miss the students from KIE. The work we did together was some of the most rewarding and exciting I have done in my life. Although we have accomplished much, it also feels as if our friendships have just begun. Knowing what we have been able to do and create in just two short weeks makes me yearn for more. How much more could we learn from each other if we had just a little more time? What could we have created in another week, a month, or more? The talent and commitment of the KIE students has been incredible, making the possibilities for additional collaboration and learning seem endless.
Our time in Rwanda has been so rich. The love and welcome I have felt during my stay has been immense, and it will not be forgotten. Already, I hope for a chance to return to this place, but I cannot say for certain what the future holds. One thing I know, however, is that the more I travel, the more I realize that I have left pieces of my heart in special places around the world—or perhaps it is the other way around; the places I have grown to love become a part of who I am. In either case, Rwanda is no exception. As my classmate, Dianna, said at last night’s farewell dinner/ceremony, “these memories are etched on our hearts.”
In just a few short hours, I’ll be winging my way back to America. Despite this, I will not say that this is “goodbye.” Whether or not we are physically in Rwanda, I think I speak for us all when I say that I know that this land and its people will always be with us.
We awoke to another beautiful day in Rwanda: birds singing, perfect temperatures and the promise of another rich day at work with the K.I.E. students. The day lived up to its promise. Chris and Helen led a session examining the speed at which things move in “real time” versus the speed at which things move in “theatrical time.” The session focused the students to look for “the important moments” in a scene or story. The results were exciting to see.
The work Chris and Helen did in the morning, translated into the work the K.I.E. students accomplished in the small groups later in the day. In a concrete mime session the students worked to find the essential aspects of an object. In a T.O. session, students made focused choices choosing specific characters to interact with and jumped into scenes only when they thought they could make a difference. While examining a poem through dramatic conventions, they looked for essential characteristics to draw the clearest picture of the poem’s main character. The work excites us and we are all are building skills and making connections. K.I.E. students in a session on making theater using fabric identified “commitment” and “concentration” as key elements of working together to create. Both are evident in the classroom. Theater continues to cross language barriers, offer us a tool with which to make meaning, and engage critical consciousness that engages human feeling as well as thought.
Jean-Marie Kayishema of the drama faculty stopped by each session today. In a conversation with Amy he expressed his happiness that we are here, that we offer the students an opportunity to make theater and experience the power of doing. The students are exposed to theory for much of their curriculum and Jean-Marie expressed a wish that the school could work on this particular brand of practical application all the time. At SPS, and elsewhere, we have experienced the power of doing theater. As I listened to the K.I.E. students discuss what they saw and experienced through the work today, it became clear they are experiencing its power too. As I heard them contemplate how they could implement it in the classrooms they are training to lead, I fully felt the parallels between us.
Visit the Project Rwanda blog and follow MA in Applied Theatre students as they implement the fourth year of the Drama and Theatre Education in Schools for Reconciliation and Development in Rwanda initiative.
In 2011, while completing her M.A. in Applied Theatre degree at SPS, Ms. Key participated in the School’s Project Rwanda: Drama and Theatre Education for Reconciliation and Development program, teaching applied theatre techniques to drama teachers at Kigali Institute of Education, Rwanda. The twin goals of the Project are: (a) to develop the use of theatre and drama strategies as educational tools to help promote unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, and (b) to create job opportunities by building applied theatre troupes, first in schools and colleges, and later in the professional, cultural milieu.
The Fulbright award will now enable Ms. Key to continue this work with two possible return visits through 2017. “I am thrilled to be given this opportunity,” said Ms. Key. “I look forward to returning to Rwanda, continuing to professionally develop through this work, and learn from the Rwandan students. I credit CUNY SPS and my phenomenal professors in the Applied Theatre program with opening up this new and exciting career opportunity that I had never imagined.”
Ms. Key is the Education Director of Vital Theatre Company, New York City, whose teaching artists integrate theatre arts into the humanities curriculum in an effort to jumpstart academic progress. A lead partner with Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School in Canarsie, the Company also holds partnerships with Fordham High School for the Arts, Bronxdale High School, PS 6, PS 166, PS 199 and PS 452. Since its founding, Vital has presented over fifty original productions for over 160,000 children and their families.
The Fulbright Specialist Program (FSP) promotes linkages between U.S. academics and professionals and their counterparts at host institutions overseas. The program is designed to award grants to qualified U.S. faculty and professionals, in select disciplines, to engage in short-term collaborative 2 to 6 week projects at host institutions in over 100 countries worldwide. International travel costs and a stipend are funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Project activities focus on strengthening and supporting the development needs of host institutions abroad. Eligible activities include short-term lecturing, conducting seminars, teacher training, special conferences or workshops, as well as collaborating on curriculum planning, institutional and/or faculty development. U.S. faculty and professionals apply to join a Roster of Specialists for a 5-year term. Roster candidates are reviewed by peers in the same discipline, and by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FSB).
For the past three years, faculty and students in the M.A. in Applied Theatre program at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies have traveled to Rwanda to implement the project “Drama and Theatre Education in Schools for Reconciliation and Development in Rwanda.” The twin goals of Project Rwanda are: to develop the use of theatre and drama strategies as educational tools to help promote unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, and to create job opportunities by building applied theatre troops; first in schools and colleges, and later in the professional, cultural milieu. SPS participants blog about their experiences to share with us back home. Below are the reflections from one student about her time in Africa:
By Amy Sawyers
I echo Joey’s sentiment, and find myself back in New York City, missing Rwanda, and wondering how to apply what I’ve learned to my life back in the states. I sat in Fort Green Park this morning, processing my emotions and memories. I expressed them through a poem that I’d like to share. While our trip may be over, it is only the beginning of a new chapter in our lives: Shamilia, Ramy, Bennett, Joey, Rachel, Kristy, Micheal, Claro, and myself. This chapter will contain the spirit of praxis, in which we reflect on what we’ve experienced in Rwanda, and then apply that to our future work. I miss you Rwanda, and I hope to visit you again one day.
“Letter to Myself: How You Encountered Rwanda”
It is said that God spends the day elsewhere to work, in the night, he rests in Rwanda -Proverb
Through a sliding van window as you spiral down a mountain, you see the clouds whispering to the hills, close, like two elders telling secrets. Let the incense scented air intoxicate your senses, and lean in to listen closely. Through the wind, you will hear years of stories–
Tales of old peacetime- when kingdoms ruled over a country united, when beer flowed and sacred cows chewed rain soaked grass–
Tales of the colonialists who helped spark the great darkness of a rainy season in 1994, when the sky could not stop weeping for its children… When the cries of the people were not enough, and the whole world turned around and shut its eyes.
But now, wait, you hear the clouds whisper words like: reconciliation, recovery, challenge, peace–
Like the turtles we saw, gently singing, crawling slow as patience, in the student’s folk tale play they performed for you.
Did you realize that a place like Rwanda would change your perspective, your life?–
Teach you how to love more openly, to see the power of applied theatre more clearly, and to mourn for a people’s history more deeply?
And when you returned to New York City with its smorgasbord flavor and frenzied buzz, charged like a lightning bolt–
Did you know that every time you saw a stranger, you’d want to say Amakuru–
That you would be followed by the memories of the smiles of the students and people of Kigali, Byumba, Kibuye, Nyanza–
That you would sing Wiriwa and Simbuka out loud as you walk the streets?
Rwanda is like dancing with hundreds of children,
It’s like the big breath of transition after you’ve had a huge cry,
Or like your heart overflowing with love in a way you never thought possible.
It is there, waiting for you to return like a mother with open arms.