Interpreting 'Truth' For Tomorrow's Peace

Since August 2006,
Since August 2006, "Truth in Translation" has toured the globe. Robert Koen, left, and Quanita Adams perform in Johannesburg. (2006 Photo By Ruphin Coudyzer -- Associated Press)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Raised on the mean streets of New York, director Michael Lessac was no easy convert to the theater of absolution.

"I didn't grow up where the notion of forgiveness was one that one really thought about," says the stage and screen veteran, whose credits range from mounting a Theodore Dreiser novel for Arena Stage to directing episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Yet Lessac has become the driving force in an unusual international theater project documenting one of the most conspicuous modern exercises in mass forgiveness.

The play-with-music "Truth in Translation," at the Atlas Performing Arts Center tonight through Saturday, focuses on South Africa's groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched in 1996 to gather testimony about human rights violations that occurred during its apartheid era. The play, which boasts a score by the renowned South African musician Hugh Masekela, is visiting five U.S. locales as part of a global tour that kicked off in Rwanda and traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The show deals with the post-apartheid commission created to help South Africa heal its national wounds and move to a racially inclusive future. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission held public hearings where victims and perpetrators of politically motivated violence, including torture and murder, recalled the trauma.

Roughly 20,000 victims testified, and more than 7,000 people applied for amnesty, based on criteria that included a full confession of human rights violations. Although the amnesty provisions proved controversial, the commission has been seen as pivotal in helping the country avert a retributive bloodbath. As Tutu wrote, "Wherever one goes, South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy, culminating in the Truth and Reconciliation process, is spoken of . . . as a phenomenon that is unique in the annals of history."

When a friend of Lessac's pointed out the dramatic potential in this historic episode, the director was skeptical. "I thought something like an exploration of forgiveness was going to be a little too soft and a little too soap opera-y," he admits.

As he read about the commission, however, one detail intrigued him: To translate the testimony into South Africa's 11 official languages, the commission employed interpreters, who were instructed to preserve complete emotional neutrality -- obviously an impossible task. "The translators had to translate in the first person, simultaneously," Lessac says. "I, I, I -- both for perpetrator and for victim."

In the company of his wife, Jackie, and his father, Arthur -- a noted voice trainer -- Lessac visited South Africa in the summer of 2001 to begin talking and listening. He soon made contact with Tutu and with Alex Boraine, the commission's deputy chairman, and those two helped open doors. Subsequent stages of the project included gathering oral histories from former Truth and Reconciliation Commission interpreters, and interviewing hundreds of actors in search of those whose own recollections of apartheid might enrich the play.

Lessac and Paavo Tom Tammi, a writer with whom he'd worked, whittled down the material to a script for an ensemble of 11 South African performers, who depict interpreters, a journalist, witnesses and other figures. Enhanced with video projections, the play explores the plight of the interpreters as they grapple with the gritty details of killings and abuse.

At a key stage in the project, Masekela acceded to Lessac's requests to come on board. The composer contributed one of the most startling aspects to the production: a score whose buoyant lyricism, rooted in traditional African harmonies, belies the distressing nature of the dramatic material. In one crooning number, for instance, a woman recalls the moment when assassins blew off a family member's head.

Lessac and some of his actors admit that the bracing music -- and the production's fusion of grim and upbeat motifs in general -- can be unsettling.

"Theatrically, it's a bizarre piece," says Quanita Adams, who plays one of the interpreters. "It does crazy things, unconventional things, disturbing things." What is more, she adds, "there's no real cathartic experience by the end of it." Rather than presenting a neat solution to the problems of guilt and pain, she says, "Truth in Translation" recognizes a truth about human nature -- in her words, "that as much as we have the capacity for good, we all live with the potential for bad."

Actor Andrew Buckland, who portrays a journalist, says the show's use of humor can be jarring to some viewers. "The technique the interpreters would use themselves is that, with very dark material, they'd use humor. So the play is full of humor, but at the same time, some of the material is extremely dark and disturbing. People are responding to that quite strongly."

The cast has ample chances to witness audience reactions, strong and otherwise, because on each leg of the tour, they conduct reconciliation-themed workshops with members of the community. In Washington, they'll get together with local high school students.

Such outreach work is a pivotal aspect of the production for Lessac and his team, who say they hope their portrait of South African renewal will inspire people in other troubled regions to choose healing over violence. The message may seem tailor-made for Rwanda, where "Truth in Translation" held its premiere in August 2006, and for Belfast, where it travels later this month. The United States was not on Lessac's original list of destinations, but a conversation with a compatriot made him think the production would resonate with Americans, too.

If "Truth in Translation" does promote group understanding, Lessac says, it's because it reveals that "you don't have to cancel out the differences between people in order to come together -- and that coming together and not killing each other doesn't mean that you have to have the absence of conflict. Conflict will always be there."

Ultimately, it's an optimistic view, he says. "I wanted to make a production about hope," he says. "And I think people do walk away with that."


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