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Thursday, July 9, 2020
NEW YORK, Sep 25 2006 (IPS) - As the horrific images of slaughter stream out of Darfur, Sudan, a playwright in New York has gathered experts, survivors, church leaders, diplomats and others to reflect on the tragic occurrence of genocide in our time.
Playwright Catherine Filloux, whose latest play, “Lemkin’s House”, is having a Broadway re-run, has arranged a series of talkbacks after each performance with the noted speakers.
They include U.N. Ambassador H.E Widhya Chem of Cambodia; Jean Baptiste Ntakirutimana, country director of Orphans of Rwanda, Inc.; Juan E. Mendez, the special advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide; Father Michael Lapsley, Institute for Healing of Memories, South Africa; and moderator Adele Welty, Steering Committee, Peaceful Tomorrows.
Filloux herself has been writing about genocide for the past 15 years. In the early 1990s, a story about 150 Cambodian women in California caught her attention. The women suffered from psychosomatic blindness after witnessing atrocities by the Khmer Rouge..
Intrigued, Filloux spent the next five years gathering oral histories from Cambodian women at St. Rita’s Centre for Immigration and Refugee Services in the Bronx. The result was her play, “Eyes of the Heart”. She stayed on at St. Rita’s, teaching English.
“Then, over the course my time there, the Bosnians started to arrive, then the Albanians,” she said. “Cambodians got pushed off to the side in the eyes of the world, and then we were dealing with something else. I began to see this phenomenon of disposable genocides.”
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, coined the word “genocide” and fathered the U.N. Convention on Genocide. “Lemkin is a man who came to this country because he thought America could do something about genocide,” said Filloux.
In 1939, he begged his family to flee Poland with him, but they stayed behind. All but his brother perished in the Holocaust. Lemkin spent the rest of his life in the United States agitating tirelessly for international laws that would prohibit genocide and require the rest of the world to act when it happens.
In 2001, Filloux presented “Photographs from S-21” in Cambodia itself. It was an experience that taught her the possibilities of dialogue in the context of the theatre.
“People would stay after the play, some crying, and start talking,” she said. “I realised that the theater is this depoliticised space where people could finally feel free to tell their stories.”
She expanded on this idea for her current production of “Lemkin’s House”, running through Oct. 8 at the Body Politic Theatre in New York. The play is set in Lemkin’s afterlife, and imagines what would happen if the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia – after Lemkin’s law was passed – hounded him beyond the grave.
Filloux’s impressive array of speakers takes part in panel discussions and answers questions after nearly every performance. The speakers are some of the leading experts on genocide, some of them survivors of genocide themselves.
At a recent performance of “Lemkin’s House”, Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories in South Africa, was among the panelists. During his battle against apartheid, Father Lapsley lost both his hands and an eye when he received an anonymous letter bomb in the mail.
“When we celebrated our victory in South Africa, the whole world came to the party,” Father Lapsley said. “The whole world looked away when Rwanda suffered. It’s appropriate that this play is being presented in New York. When New York had its day of suffering, the whole world sympathised. When Rwanda suffered, New York looked away.”
Another panelist was Ruti Teitel, a human rights scholar and professor at New York Law School. “Has it made any difference?” she asked. “Having a vocabulary, having a discourse, having the possibility to call the White House and say ‘this is a genocide,’ matters. Lemkin gave us a vocabulary, and the discourse lays the basis for action.”
“Lemkin never stopped believing in the power of words,” said Filloux. “But the one thing that will make a difference is political will. If there are actually enough people who make waves and say we will not let this happen, that’s when change happens.”
Filloux, of French and Algerian parents, shares Lemkin’s belief in the power of language. “Words are what make us human,” said Filloux. “Lemkin still exists because the words of his law still exist.”
Filloux’s next projects include a a libretto for a musical score by a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Him Sophy, called “Where Elephants Weep”. The award-winning writer is also working on a play about Hurricane Katrina, and a man who is handicapped and has to swim out of his house after it is inundated with water. It will open at Southern Rep, which is in New Orleans, on the second anniversary of the killer storm.
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