by Chris Jones
January 23, 2009
In 1965, when docudrama was still novel, the German writer Peter Weiss created a play entirely from words spoken in a trial. Held in a German court between 1964 and 1965, this court proceeding concerned the actions of 21 individuals responsible, at least in part, for the murder of some four million people at Auschwitz.
Weiss created a poetic condensation of the horrific transcript of gas, stench, murder, cruelty, if such a word as poetry can aptly be applied to genocide. In the first Book Club edition from 1966 (which sits on my shelf), the editor suggested that the point was to document “the outstanding negative achievement of our civilization: the use of the concentrated power of a modern technology by a sophisticated leadership to draw a highly civilized people into participation, active or passive, in the irrational destruction of a segment of its own population which had been designated worthless.”
The implication of the traveling Rwandan production of The Investigation, which occupies the Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Jan. 31, is partly to suggest that our civilization is perfectly capable of repeating such acts. But it also makes a point that Weiss’ English-language editor from 1966 preferred not to emphasize. There are always outsiders aware of such abominations.
Invariably, they don’t do enough. That was surely the case among the Allies between 1941 and 1945, and it was surely the case when some 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in 1994 over a period of about three months. Nothing was done by the West to stop it. As adapted (and abridged) by Jean Baudrillard and performed by seven Rwandan or Congolese actors under the direction of Dorcy Rugamba, The Investigation is an explicit attempt from the Rawanda-based company Urwintore to tell one story by using another. And—to get the main problem of the production out of the way—you could make an argument that, while such a creative appropriation is surely an inspired move in front of African audiences, European and American audiences still know so little about the events of 1994 that this traveling Rwandan company would have been better using their own words and telling their own stories.
Nonetheless, the echoes and implications of the piece are unmistakable and profoundly moving. This is an internationalization of The Investigation, a 90-minute re-contextualization by people who surely have acquired the moral right to do so. It is a disturbing piece that makes you ponder anew those woefully inadequate ’60s court proceedings in terms of what was to follow in Africa and beyond. It does not diminish the Holocaust in any way. It is designed to enhance our understanding of its horrors. Weiss always insisted that no attempt should be made to re-create the 1960s courtroom setting, since that would be as futile as trying to put Auschwitz on stage. Rugamba’s actors respect that simplicity, performing on a simple stage and rarely layering their work with intense emotion or explicitly imposing their own situations upon it. You just watch them speak. Very simply.
Sometimes the context seems strained; at others, universal truths about the evil capacity of human beings burns through the years and the miles.
And occasionally, these African actors playing mostly Jewish accusers locate the accused in the Navy Pier audience, where they symbolically point them out.