Breaking the Fourth Wall in Rwanda
By Elise Webb
Our van rumbles up the dirt roads with ruts running deep from the rainy season. Children seem to be the first to spot us and call out; many even chase after us. In the rear view mirror you can see them waving and yelling; filling up the frame with arms and feet, dust building up between us and them. The only word I understand is ‘muzungu’ (white person) and it’s yelled over and over again like it’s my name. I get a bit worried in the old social researcher sense that the very fact I am there is changing the process.
In Little-Engine-that-Could-style our van reaches the crest of a beautiful hill and we park. The vista is like none other. I won’t be surprised if in the next few years Hollywood discovers Ngororero and chooses it as the backdrop for a Neverland or Shangri-La. Each hill builds a horizon of overlapping layers and every inch of the land is cultivated. It’s an intricate patchwork of terraces flecked with houses. I hadn’t realized, until speaking with my boss, Rebecca, that this beauty, striking because it’s so orderly, is actually a source of tension here. How can you expect to raise infinite generations with finite plots land? As the population grows, it’s getting harder to take care of families since the traditional ways are not growing in tandem.
We’re here for a Search for Common Ground participatory theater performance and actors tumble out of the van, quickly constructing a simple performance space. The theme this time is “The Citizen and the Officials, Working Together for Development.” Thankfully, the commotion is more interesting than the muzungu and I am free to observe.
As the troupe hammers in posts for a perimeter of the stage people stop and stare. Each hit brings a new audience member. Clang!—a man in a t-shirt emblazoned with “Del-a-where?” stops. Clang!—a lady dragging a reluctant goat pauses. Clang!—a handful of children clump up, hiding behind one another, curious enough to gape but not to approach alone. You can see in the distance, behind bushes and around corners, like mirages, figures waiting, observing the action, just like I am.
Soon the sound system blares lively music such as Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” and the actors dance vibrantly in a circle. That’s when the spectators start. They sit. They stand. They shoo others to get out of their way. A dance contest literally pulls people into the circle. After a winner is selected the actors move on to the real business for the day, playing four typical scenes of conflict from around the Ngororero District. The people watch attentively, leaning in, wrinkling their faces with concern, releasing their tension with bursts of laughter. One scene is so funny to the crowd; you can see a woman with tears streaming down her face. They know these conflicts; they have met these fictional characters every day.
The moment of truth hits when the people are asked to participate. Some readily jump in to offer solutions, like how to solve a dispute between a husband and wife. Some scenes take a bit of coaxing. Asking a spectator to join the actors in pretending to be a government official while real authorities are watching in the audience, can be a bit intimidating. Yet it is truly magical when it works. An idealistic 19-year-old boy argues in the role of a district official, that true leaders should stick up for the sufferers. A district executive secretary herself joins the next scene to display her savvy at problem solving which generates whispers from the crowd and calls to the leader about personal grievances. This small piece of theater was actually encouraging an active dialogue. From the reactions of some in the audience, collaboration with government leaders is new.
The marriage of theater and social justice movements is not new; I’ve seen the effect on a grand scale in the Czech Republic. But to see sparks of change, to see acute and genuine attentiveness to the performance is something few American actors get to feel. Sure there’s applause and laughter but the western restrictions of lights and sets make the ‘fourth wall’ an unassailable barrier. Here with SFCG, theater is a living breathing organism that the audience feeds with their opinions and insights. Hopefully, this nourishing dialogue will speed up growth of lasting connections between citizens and their representatives. If nothing else for one afternoon in the sun, everyone had a chance to be heard.