They were there because each of Essential Theatre's public performances this season is scheduled to be done in association with a different Valley human-services agency, and this first was in partnership with Refugee Women United for Progress (RWUP). Before the lights went down, the woman next to me leaned over and apologized to me in advance, as she would be whispering a translation of the performance into French for the benefit of the two colorfully dressed women from Congo in the row in front of us.
The theme for this evening, the moderator told us, was "Stories of Escape." What were some things in our lives, we were asked, that we needed to escape from? The refugee women, who had escaped poverty, war, imprisonment and religious and political persecution, at first remained respectfully silent.
The rest of the audience -- middle-class Americans -- did not.
"Loneliness!" said one. "Family!" said another. "The Inner Critic!" offered yet another.
At last one of the refugees, a Sudanese woman, spoke up: "War!" she said. She was asked to elaborate. She and her children had left her husband in Sudan because of the war there.
Without hesitation, the moderator asked, "How did that make you feel?" Essential Theatre's method is to take life stories from audience members and present them as performance-art-ish vignettes by improvisational actors, using expressionistic movement, vocalizations and sometimes repeated words or phrases. After each of these episodes, the moderator (or "conductor") asks what it was like to see your story acted out. It's sort of a cross between theater, therapy and corporate interaction workshop.
Thus, the quartet of attractive performers onstage did some movements and vocalizations appropriate to the Sudanese woman's story. In an ordinary performance-art context, it might have been reasonably interesting, but it seemed ridiculously inadequate as an expression of the woman's tale. Except . . . except that the woman dissolved in tears as she watched it. The Iraqi woman next to her put an arm around her shoulder.
On the moderator's next request for a story, there was silence until an American guy spoke up, and in front of these women dared to say that he had once needed to escape from a teaching position that wasn't right for him. What I felt the need to escape from at this point was embarrassment.
The most powerful part of the evening came when women from the audience were invited to sit in a storyteller's chair to one side of the stage and give a lengthy account of their escapes. One of the women from Congo in the row in front of me went first. Through an interpreter, she related how she was arrested at the Congo border, how soldiers killed her husband, how she gave birth to twins in prison, how she and her 10 children were liberated by Americans.
Once again came the question: "How do you feel, being here?" The moderator didn't seem chastened by the reply, as rendered by the interpreter: "She's very happy here; her kids can eat." She added, "Even though she's very happy here, she still feels sad. . . . She misses her husband." Then a reflection: "When there is war and suffering, God prepares peace."
How could the actors top that?
They couldn't. But I couldn't be sorry they tried, because, again, it really did seem cathartic for the woman from Congo. Nothing onstage was remotely as moving as the sight of her watching, nodding, daubing her eyes with the end of her headwrap.
The next testimony came from a slim, elegantly dressed woman from Sudan. She spoke quietly, in English, to the moderator, who then related the story to the audience. As clearly as I could follow the account, she had seen her home invaded by soldiers, seen her mother wounded, fled with her father and brothers but got separated from them, and taken refuge with her cousin. To finance a family migration out of Sudan and into Egypt, the cousin then had her married off to a man from Yemen, a Moslem who demanded she convert from Christianity. She hasn't seen her family members since, and doesn't know what happened to them.
This woman likewise spoke in plainsong profundities that put us touchy-feely Americans to shame: "It's bad if you don't like the man you marry," and, "African man think if you come here, you have freedom, you lose the woman." Asked to provide a title for her story as she would for a movie, she smiled ruefully and said, "It's a bad movie."
The four actors began their "playback" of this story with a standard improv-comedy gambit, a Siskel and Ebert spoof, with the Sudanese woman's tribulations serving as clips from the "movie" they were watching, one "critic" trying to convince the other that it really wasn't such a "bad movie." Once again, it fell hopelessly short of the woman's firsthand telling, but once again, it seemed to move her. She wept at the dramatic parts, and laughed at the clowning. And it was undeniably touching when one of the actors ended the sketch with the phrase, "To be continued . . ."