by Byron Woods
After creating a series of "testimonial plays" based on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, playwright Yael Farber approached a group of women from the Xhosa people in 2008, and told them the story of The Oresteia. The Greek tragic trilogy still confronts us with dilemmas our civilization hasn't fully solved. How do we distinguish justice from vengeance? What is the appropriate punishment for murder? And once "eye for an eye" violence is ingrained in a culture, how can it be stopped?
At the time she was looking for umngqokolo—traditional overtone throat singing for her new project. But the women's responses to the tale shocked the playwright. What became a spontaneous Greek—yet uniquely African—chorus sought and found a solution to this ancient dilemma of justice. It differed from the one depicted in the writings of Aeschylus.
This week, those women, their musicians and three actors sing and enact the 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.
INDEPENDENT: I’m aware that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a profound influence on your work. I’m wondering what lessons you believe the rest of the world hasn’t learned yet from South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Why is a work like MoLoRa (Ash) needed—why is it a work the world should have?
FARBER: The genesis of project was actually images of New York City after Sept. 11. For days after the tragedy, there were those incredibly poignant and moving images of ashes falling down on people in Manhattan.
Then I was struck by a particular sort of rallying cry the Bush administration made in the aftermath: “We will heal this wound if we strike out.” Even more striking was the indiscriminate nature of the striking out: “Just as long as we punch back, wherever the punch lands, we’ll feel better for it.”
We all know how good, how cathartic it feels to hit back, in that moment. And I know that a huge portion of the American people did not necessarily align with this method of trying to heal the wound. But I was struck by the contrasts between such a high-tech leadership in a high-tech society, and how South Africa tried to heal its wounds.
I was struck by the humility of the (TRC) 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 one of the murdered Gugulethu Seven, and the man who killed her son, seated across the table.
Beyond everything, you sit down opposite the perpetrator, your tormentor, the person who killed your child, your husband, your wife, or your sister. You ask that they come with the truth about the 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 (South Africa) face(s); this is not to idealize any society.
But Klytemnestra’s final words in MoLoRa are, “We are still only here by grace alone.” To speak for the community I come from, the white community in South Africa, there was an act of grace that enabled the rest of us to go forward and still call South Africa home. It avoided what could have happened—the expected outcome, some kind of violence and bloody overthrow.
Africa is so often portrayed as the begging bowl of the world. Of course it’s a continent that’s been ravaged by colonialism and by civil wars; it’s a continent that’s been imploded from the center in so many different ways and stripped of its resources. The devastating consequences that act themselves out, in the worst possible ways, show what human nature is capable of, as it does in Europe or anywhere we’ve seen genocide unfold.
But suffering either contracts or expands you. When Cynthia Ngwenyu faced her son’s murderer, she said, “This thing called reconciliation… If I am understanding it correctly… if it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed my son, if it means he becomes human again, this man, so that I, so that all of us, get our humanity back…then I agree, then I support it all.”
Really, it’s just the contrast between the simplicity of the human encounter versus the natural penchant we have as human beings to create some kind of holy or righteous, ancient, counteractive bloodletting.
Here was this supposedly shattered society. (Ngwenyu) had no education; she was a domestic worker. But that reflected nothing of her spiritual interior, which was able to say, “Let’s go forward as human beings.”
I have to say, I also made the work out of a sense of bewilderment, that anybody could have that level of spiritual, philosophical sophistication—because I know I wouldn’t. If somebody touched my child, I know immediately what my base instinct is: I would kill them. Particularly as a white South African, there can be no moralizing from me.
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.
I do want focus for a moment on justice and something that is, I think, its look-alike, but also its inverse. One thing that has always interested me about Greek drama is its eerie ability to show us just how far we haven’t come in two and a half millennia.
Here, we don’t face the question of justice as much as the dilemma of it. When you’re Elektra, the daughter of a mother who has killed your father, you face conflicting responsibilities to family, to justice, and perhaps to mercy. Antigone faces conflicting duties to religion, to the state and to her family. The fundamental allegiances of both women are placed at odds with one another. Repeatedly, the Greeks ask, “What do we do as a culture when such allegiances are in conflict?”
On top of this, there’s the dilemma of action. Clearly, justice must be done when murder has been committed. But what action does justice, while preventing the blood curse—vengeance—from corrupting the next generation, and the next? What just action interrupts the lockstep of consequence after consequence, judgment necessitating further judgment in turn, blood requiring more blood?
Shall we meditate for a moment on how the desire for justice turns an endeavor into the opposite of justice?
How much simpler—but less potent—would the story have been had someone else killed their father. The fact that it’s their mother creates an extraordinary dilemma. It makes The Oresteia a metaphor for how we implode as a tribe, and how we destroy ourselves, our own blood from within, when we engage in such acts of vengeance.
In the original text, Orestes murders Klytemnestra. To kill anyone is something, but to kill your own mother—there’s something so deeply primitive about it. For a young man who came into this world covered in his mother’s own blood, the fact that he ends up covered in it again, in the original text, is a very potent image. It speaks potently to our intellect, but also powerfully to some kind of exact response that challenges us.
Indeed, it’s the enormous conflict in choice that these two children—Orestes and Elektra—go through that interested me. It really is a fight for their soul.
The original Greek already speaks of consequence to this murder. Orestes exits, pursued by the hounds of Hell. He sacrifices himself to this curse; somehow it’s inexorably a part of his destiny. There’s no choice to what he can do.
Can we rewrite an ancient text? I mean, the barefaced cheek of it—to go in and change the ending of the original! But that actually came, organically, out of our process. In so doing, it raised these questions: Can an Orestes dare to rewrite the ending? Can he dare to reengage choice in the matter?
I had an interesting conversation with a German journalist, whose mandate I suppose was to be as provocative as possible. He had not seen the work yet, but said, “Surely there’s kitsch in changing it to a happy ending.”
Good heavens. Given the script, the term is problematic on both ends. There’s nothing happy about the final scene in MoLoRa. It’s also clear: nothing here is ending.
Exactly. The most difficult choice is to stand up as the children do in the piece, and help Klytemnestra to her feet.
There are no hugs. No one says, “We accept you back into the family.”
Instead, they say, “You must go your way and make peace with what you’ve done. Whether you should die or not is something we will take on no longer. We are turning to our own healing, rather than healing based on the destruction of anything else. We are breaking the cycle.”
It’s the opposite of kitsch, I believe. To face an ending that engages us in something besides the primitive call for revenge—this is the most difficult choice one can make. It’s where the challenge begins, not ends: a very complex process of somehow putting things back together again.
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 a battle cry; they’re psyching themselves up. It’s not even a decision; you feel it in their language—it’s a foregone conclusion. A lot of that chanting is from Sophocles’ original text.
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 from it.
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.
Tell me of your experiences with the women of the Xhosa tribe, in the Ngqoko Cultural Group.
I first heard their music several years ago when I did an adaptation of Julius Caesar called SeZaR. They live in a very rural area, and they don’t speak any English whatsoever. They have recorded, and traveled to Europe several times to sing as a group. But they still continue to live a rural life—apart from their cell phones—very much like it’s been lived for centuries in their villages.
I wanted them to sing for this project, so I went out to the village to meet them.
How would you describe their voices?
As sonic wisdom. I had already asked what a Greek chorus is—besides an unsuccessful device on stage. I’ve never seen it look like anything but bad poetry being recited—it’s really just a killer. I was asking, what do you make of this ancient device that must have once been so potent?
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 called split or overtone singing. It’s an extraordinary technique that they’re trained in from a very early age. It turns the vocal cords into some kind of extraordinary musical instrument, that doesn’t sound human but can only be from a human being, because it’s so organic. The notes contrast with each other and create this vibration.
It’s an absolutely unearthly sound. While I was writing the show, I was eight months pregnant. 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. It sounds like earth—if you could amplify what’s going on beneath granite and rock and lava and water.
When I heard it, I said, “This is the chorus. 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.
So you went to their village.
I arrived there. I walked into a mud hut, where they were: this powerhouse of matriarchs, 19 or 20 strong, all sitting in their traditional costumes, with clay on their faces and bodies. It was the most extraordinarily beautiful vision to walk into.
In a way, I felt like Elektra: There were sitting there, almost like a tribunal, waiting for me. People have commented on the power of these women as a chorus. There was nothing hostile; they were wonderfully warm and welcoming. But I felt this incredible gaze, which said, “Who are you?”
They received me with a tremendous humanity and perfect stillness. At the same time it was impassive; it wasn’t engaged in the histrionics of emotion. I was so aware of simply being witnessed.
Someone gave me an upturned crate to sit on. I said, “I have a story I would like to tell you, and I’d just like to know what you think of it.”
To tell them The Oresteia was an amazing experience. It took hours because, first of all, every word had to be translated.
But what was more time-consuming was that I had to stop almost every three sentences. The women would plunge into these incredibly impassioned discussions. When I asked the translator what they were talking about, he would translate for me. They were discussing every angle of the moral implications from the choices that were being made.
They were a deliberative body.
Very much so. And it took hours as they slowly worked through The Oresteia with me. It was as if I were speaking about their own children; this is how personal their engagement was.
At the same time, there was this kind of Zen, of impassive witnessing. But they were passionate toward each other, in their opinions, as a group, about what should be done.
When I told them Klytemnestra killed her own husband, they felt that was terrible. Then I told them a bit about Klytemnestra’s history, and they were really moved to hear how Agamemnon had taken her to be his wife.
So now there was a dilemma. And they would discuss it, and there were very strong opinions.
Still, it was irrefutable to them: Murder was never, ever the answer to the pain.
It was incredible. I felt somewhere, somehow, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were smiling.
That’s uncanny. The group immediately invoked a Greek chorus, without being asked to, without prompting?
I had no idea what was about to unfold in front of me. It was the last thing I expected—that I would witness a manifestation of the chorus. It was absolutely organic. When one sees them on stage, you see they’re incapable of some kind of affectation of this nature. There’s nothing to be gained from affectation in the lives they live. It was so authentic, so based in an unfolding of a communal response—to a story that’s been given to us as a gift from our ancestors.
One of the women in the group is a spiritual advisor, a diviner. She took out sticks, and started singing, dancing and chanting to invoke something very particular. She was praying for the children, for the wisdom of their decision—and we actually use that at the end of the play.
We had just met, and they were already creating material. The way I witnessed what was unfolding was giving me a lot of answers.
What did the Xhosa women have to do with the choice to change Aeschylus’ ending?
They were intrinsic to it. There was this ongoing dialogue, because we hadn’t reached that point in the staging yet; everyday they would say to me, “What are the children going to do?” And I would say, “They’re going to kill their mother.”
Then they would say to me, “No, they’re not.” (Laughs.) “They’re not going to do that.”
They made it very clear to me that they were simply not going to allow Elektra or Orestes to kill their mother. They made it clear what would be unacceptable to them as witnesses.
I believe that creation and direction is about listening more than anything else. This became the evolving nature of the work. It was really about listening, as they guided me through what they as a chorus would accept.
I’ve already spoken about the power of their presence. If you have that caliber of presence in a room, you should listen to what they’re really saying.
And ultimately, there was something so intrinsic to the choices that the children made in the piece. I took this to its natural conclusion. The work manifests that to its full extent.
There’s a rhetoric of economics in the terms of crime and punishment. A criminal must “pay the price” for his actions; a “blood debt” is invoked when murder is committed. Elsewhere, I’ve written that far too many people have misinterpreted the dictum “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—which appears in the Torah, the Koran and the Old Testament—as some divinely-ordained rate of exchange, instead of a warning that no profit can possibly come from violence.
It appears that MoLoRa takes us out of this horrific realm—this commerce of retribution—and takes us somewhere else. Where do you feel the structure here leads us?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to take us beyond these economics. Sadly, in many ways it failed to address something that was very economic. When he testified before the Commission, Duma Kamalo, a death row inmate who came within 15 hours of execution, asked, “How do I feed my family?” Lives were destroyed—and many felt they had sold off something they didn’t get back. In many times and many ways, I know how bitterly disappointed people were.
But still, it was a beginning: the genesis of that first idea, “We do have a choice in how we respond to violence.” And MoLoRa is an attempt to express that beginning.
Orestes is a victim of the debt of bloodletting. He is born to avenge his father’s death. But at some point he stops being this beast of burden, and wonders: “What do I want for my fate rather than destiny? How can I disengage from the expectations of my tribe—or the expectations of the 'eye for eye' urgency that is created by an injured society or an injured psyche?”
Again, I say all of this not even really knowing what the answer is. Put into a situation where I was taken to the limit of my human experience of grief, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that my response would be more like the Greeks, and less like Cynthia Ngwenyu.
Then again, we’re articulating the nature of the trap. If it were easy, no one would be snared.
If it were not a dilemma, it would have already been solved. That’s what makes compelling theater: the terrible dilemma.
Anne Carsons, the Canadian writer, has written a magnificent essay, “Tragedy, a Curious Art Form.” It’s the introduction to her book, Grief Lessons. I gave the cast the essay two years ago. It takes you straight into what the sacred craft of acting is. She says that an actor is not someone who pretends, but someone who takes action for us: "Do want to go down to the pits of your soul? Not very much? Then let us do it for you."
She says the actor transports us into the dilemma and takes us through the visceral, vicarious experience of “What would I do?” This enables us to witness how a dilemma resolves itself and what its consequences are—so we don’t have to live it. They live it for us. Playwrights and directors create the frame so that we can undergo this kind of communal ritual.
In a way, this is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did. We sat and we watched as people engaged in the dilemma: "Do I approve of the amnesty for this individual? Do I come forward and say everything that was done? What are my motivations?"
As we witness this, we face ourselves. And the humble beginnings of a healing process take place. Or we go the opposite direction.
What work do you wish MoLoRa to do in the world now?
To raise the question of choice in a dilemma.
To create some kind of critical thinking over what seems to be the inevitable consequences of pain and violence, so that it takes us to a higher place than this illusion of the mathematics of vengeance, the illusion that grief is somehow resolved through violence.
It’s to reflect on how far we haven’t come in two and a half thousand years, and to begin that humble process of finding what the alternatives are: What is the way to engage that is not that base response, that basic impulse to strike out?