When We Look: An Artistic Collaboration is not easy to watch. The subject matter—women as victims of war and genocide—inspires feelings of discomfort and horror, but When We Look tells an important story that needs to be heard.
When We Look: An Artistic Collaboration, presented through April 13 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis. For information and tickets ($18), see margo1.com.
The script, written by Aditi Brennan Kapil in collaboration with the ensemble of actors, weaves folktales, biographical narrative, and medical texts to create a seamless tapestry of women’s stories. Kapil takes the perspective of women from five different wars: Beatrice, from Rwanda; Zilka, from Bosnia-Herzegovina; 75 women from Herat, Afghanistan, who set themselves on fire in protest for the atrocities perpetrated on them; Sister Dianna Ortiz, a nun who is murdered in Guatemala despite being a North American, which then leads to a cover-up; and Chante, a U.S. serviceperson serving in Iraq who speaks of rape within the military ranks. There are parallels in these women’s stories: violence, rape, and death are themes throughout. Each woman’s voice, however, is unique. Each of these women comes from a particular background and carries her own individual strength and hope.
Interwoven amongst the biographical stories are folktales pregnant with metaphor. The main allegory involves an Inuit girl who is thrown into the ocean by her father, only to be caught in the net by a fisherman. The fisherman drags the girl from the water, but is unable to detangle her from the net wrapped around his back. He cannot see her, as she is behind him, and eventually he gets used to walking with a woman strapped to his back. This folktale is told and retold throughout the performance, bridging the stories of these women from five different countries, underlining the theme of how women become accustomed to discomfort and sorrow.
Kapil also introduces throughout the script snippets of medical text, describing how to determine the age and sex of a cadaver. These moments of cold, emotionless appraisal of death contrast with the highly emotional personal narratives. They remind the audience of what happens when death is so pervasive in a time and place: officials lose sight of the human aspects of war.
The performers are not so much actors as they are storytellers. Julie Kastigar Boada, Margo Abdo O’Dell, Esther Ouray, Ellena A. Schoop, and Laurie Witzkowski let the stories fall out of them with a harrowing rawness. Using dance, movement, costumes, and dialogue, they create an ensemble of voices from around the globe. To tell Beatrice’s story from Rwanda, the performers display images on cloth. In the wake of violence, the cloth is torn apart and the women break into frenzied African dance. By contrast, Chante’s story from the U.S. military is expressed by movement set to heavy metal music.
There are three musicians that interact with the storytellers throughout the performance. Jocko MacNelly, Tim O’Keefe, and Maryam Yusefzade are superb performers. They use a variety of musical styles from traditional to contemporary, from each of the cultures represented. The music works with the drama and movement to bring the audience to an emotional precipice again and again. Maryam Yusefzade’s clear voice fills the theatre with a sound that is as pure as it is haunting.
Julie Kastigar Boada’s set design comprises dresses in color and in an off-white. When lit from behind, the dresses display intricate images that support the stories. The dresses are a thing of beauty, but detached from their owners’ bodies, they are a reminder of death as well. Boada’s design becomes another voice as the dresses are manipulated by the performers.
The whole performance is quite short—only an hour and ten minutes without an intermission—but it is exhausting. The company of storytellers demands engagement from the audience. It is impossible to see this piece without asking “How can this happen?” and “What can I do?”
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.