Duke Performances at Reynolds Industries Theater
Trust the Greeks to show us just how far we haven't come in 2,500 years.
In depicting a series of homicides spanning three generations of a royal family, The Oresteia, a trilogy of classic Greek tragedies, confronts us with dilemmas we still haven't solved. How do we distinguish justice from vengeance? What is the appropriate punishment for murder? And once a cycle of reciprocal "eye for an eye" violence has become ingrained in a culture, how can it be stopped?
After creating a series of "testimonial plays" based on the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s, playwright Yael Farber approached a group of women from the Xhosa people—who were members of the Ngqoko cultural group—in 2008 and told them the story of the Oresteia.
At the time, she was looking for umngqokolo—traditional overtone throat singers for her new project, but their response to the tale shocked the playwright. Without prompting or prior knowledge of the theatrical convention, what Farber terms a "powerhouse of matriarchs" immediately began responding as a Greek chorus to the tale, regularly interrupting her account to deliberate among themselves. In the process, that organic African chorus sought—and, ultimately, arrived at—a solution to the ancient dilemma of justice. That solution differs from the one found in the writings of Aeschylus.
This week, those women, their musicians and three actors sing and enact their conclusions they've reached in the Farber Foundry production of MoLoRa (Ash) at Reynolds Industries Theater.
We spoke with Yael Farber by phone for an hour on March 11. These excerpts are from the conversation. A more complete version of the interview can be found online at Artery, the Indy's arts blog.
INDEPENDENT: How would you describe the voices of the Xhosa women?
FARBER: As sonic wisdom. I had asked what a Greek chorus is—besides an unsuccessful device onstage. Finally, I realized it's community, it's the wisdom, it's the gravel that sits beneath; what moves a community and what holds it together. It's truth.
Then, when I heard their sound, I felt this is what wisdom, what forefathers sound like; what ancient truth, what that gravel sounds like.
It's an absolutely unearthly sound. It makes me think of what it must be like to hear the outside world from within the womb. The technique reduces sound to resonances and bass notes that create ... a calling, back to something ancestral, regardless of what culture you come from. It grounds the emotional storyline that the three actors carry.
When I heard it, I said, "I don't need [them] to say a word. If they can just make that sound, I'll come home to whatever bitter truth you're trying to make me face. Just hold me in that sound, between every horrifying and difficult scene to watch, and I will stay the course with you."
When I was watching the [TRC] trials, I became aware of a chorus of women there as well: these matriarchs of South Africa, who would sit and stoically listen, and absorb the pain for the community. In their acts of prayer, acts of song, there's a way all of these high emotions get downloaded in a very ancestral way. The sound of the women bestows all of that ritual, that grounding, that basic truth we need to be held by in order to face our most difficult stories. That's really what chorus is and should be: It's a group that metabolizes events for us.
The TRC had a profound influence on your work. What lessons haven't the rest of the world learned from it yet?
I was struck by the humility of the hearings we witnessed in makeshift halls in South Africa: the low-tech nature of it—and yet the incredible spiritual sophistication of the event.
It put me in mind of the way Greek tragedies create a scenario that is so personal, and feels so intimate, and yet it's epic. It's just between Cynthia Ngweyu (mother of a slain activist) and the man who killed her son, seated across the table.
You sit down opposite the perpetrator. You ask that they come with the truth about that event so that, human to human, you try to reach some kind of reconciliation—or not. It feels so intimate. And yet it becomes this lens, this prism that reflects us back at ourselves in many ways.
Let's be very humble about this: There's no consummated healing at an event like this. But in this ritual there's the beginning of healing for the entire community. There are many, many problems we face; this is not to idealize any society. But I was moved to create a piece that could express the miracle of that period in South Africa's history and how it shined a light on what could be a real way forward for the rest of the world.
When Klytemnestra's children are described as "bred ... like wolves whose savage hearts do not relent," MoLoRa describes how vengeance ultimately dehumanizes those who seek it. Is this the trap of justice?
As the children are chanting these words, they do so with tremendous pride. It's not even a decision; you feel it in their language—it's a foregone conclusion.
I want to take on this particular tribalism that I don't believe we've ever let go of. It helps us to the extent we take identity. But there's also this incredible sense of separation. As soon as one is dehumanized by violence, one must further dehumanize oneself to meet that violence head-on, to meet fire with fire. But the final notion of the piece is, when you meet fire with fire, nothing can ultimately remain but ash.