“Can you draw me your grandfather?” asks Kiki Katese, stretching her hands out wide. The audience in Morningside’s Church Hill Theatre get to work, committing family memories to small sheets of paper. As we draw, eight members of the pioneering Women Drummers of Rwanda create joyful thunder on stage.
The Book of Life is an astonishing theatrical embodiment of Katese’s years-long mission: to encourage Rwandan people to write letters to people who were murdered in the 1994 genocide. With awe-inspiring poise, she stands centre-stage and reads aloud from those letters, juxtaposing the grief of family members who lost loved ones with painful apologies from perpetrators.
Katese’s method is simple and her vision for the future is deeply humbling: every time you recount how someone died, she says, they die again, and so the letters are bracingly conversational and direct – as if the recipient were sitting at the same table. In this way Katese balances remembering and forgetting, bringing life to those whose stories were cut short, while creating a path forward for those still living.
Remarkably The Book of Life finds moments of levity. Interspersed with the letters is a fable of a spider seeking out the sun, conjured up with child-like magic through shadow puppetry and woodcut illustration, projected to the back of an elegant, minimal set. And after Katese offers a letter to her own grandmother, spoken with unbelievable grace, the Drummers transform pain into pure, cathartic power. A miraculously life-affirming show, The Book of Life attests to the best of humanity.