Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

THE BOOK OF LIFE Offers Lessons in Healing and Sharing

By: Jun. 03, 2023
Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

Staggering our ability to comprehend, with a death toll of a million people over the space of just 100 days, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 isn’t the easiest subject to deal with, either for those who lost loved ones in the slaughter or for the international community that looked away. Co-creators Gakire Katese Odile, who speaks to us, and Ross Manson, who also directs, both know that the carnage cannot be minimized or undone.

Collaborating on THE BOOK OF LIFE, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last September, Odile and Ross don’t even point fingers at those who sowed the deadly discord with toxic misinformation. Instead, their mission is one of healing for the survivors of the catastrophe and building concrete new hopes to replace the ruins. Staged at Festival Hall (formerly Meminger Auditorium) in its US premiere, The Book of Life is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary events at Spoleto Festival USA this year, a genial ceremony of storytelling, music, dance, AV projections, and communal empathy.

Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

We all received little pencils and pieces of paper as we entered the hall, so it was no mystery that we would participate. Odile, better known as Kiki, tells us something curious in the early moments about her encounters with both survivors and perpetrators: all of them speak of “we” in addressing their experiences instead of “I,” the more logical first-person.

To break through that defensive emotional distancing, Kiki asked them all to write personal letters to the dearest relatives they lost or, in the case of the perpetrators, the people they killed. Kiki’s collection of these letters, some of which she reads to us, are her Book of Life. Since each of these recalls a different story, it is easy enough for Kiki to weave other elements into the fabric of her show.

Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

One recurring thread is an origin folktale where a leopard calls together the entire animal world and asks them all how they can steal away a piece of the sun from the other side of creation to light up their world of darkness. In succeeding episodes, a mole rat, a vulture, and a wee spider volunteer to be the leopard’s stealthy envoys, tunneling through to the other world, chipping off a piece of sun that won’t be missed, and bringing it back intact to spread the light.

Spread across the stage, four women in amazing multicolored braids on each side of Kiki, are a group of live light-givers, the inspirational Ingoma Nshya (“New Drum” or “New Power” if you don’t speak Kinyarwandan): The Women Drummers of Rwanda. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, a grassroots movement incorporating all of Kiki’s constructive and conciliatory impulses founded the first Rwandan women’s drum circle in centuries – overturning a taboo against women even touching a drum or approaching a drummer.

Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

The group’s name proves to be rather modest, for the women not only pound complex arrangements by Mutangana Mediatrice on their large conga drums, they sing impressively – as soloists or as a chorus – and they also dance, swinging their multicolored braids as part of the choreography or in pure joy. Translations of the songs are projected upstage, where we also see animations that accompany the testimonial letters and the animal fable.

Altogether, I thought that Kiki didn’t read nearly enough letters from The Book to counterbalance all of her charming diversions. Perhaps the most pleasing of these was hearing of her initiative to employ more women in Rwanda, an ice cream shop called Sweet Dreams, staffed entirely by women.

Review: THE BOOK OF LIFE at Spoleto Festival USA

Most intriguing was Kiki’s unique exercise in sharing, when she asked everyone to draw a picture of one of our grandfathers with our pencils and papers. Not at all standoffish, Kiki herself came out into the hall to collect our handiwork, a nice touch. Then she gathered the entire drumming ensemble around her onstage to pick a winner that was shared with all of us, blown up on the projection screen.

The sharing continued as Kiki showed us a sheaf of past winners, one by one. After the show, trays of today’s drawings would be available in the lobby, and Kiki encouraged us to pick up one of these grandfathers as a keepsake on the way out. It was a fine way of underscoring a key point: images and memories of loved ones we have lost are still in our hearts and minds, shareable if we make the effort.


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From This Author - Perry Tannenbaum

  Perry Tannenbaum has been covering the performing arts across the Carolinas since 1987. He has also acted onstage in productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, innovative Theatre, an... Perry Tannenbaum">(read more about this author)


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