Beth Fritzinger | Design EditorArts & Entertainment
War and peace: Reality-inspired play offers opportunity for Congolese community to unite
Growing up in a country of war is like growing up an orphan.
It’s the insatiable desire for the love of a parent, unquenchable due to the circumstances surrounding the child.
This is how Cyprien Mihigo described childhood in the Congo. Mihigo is a Congolese refugee, and leader of the Congolese community in Syracuse.
Mihigo is the head dramaturg and creator of “Cry for Peace,” a documentary-style play about Congolese refugees living in Syracuse. The world premiere of the show, after years of rewrites and workshops, will be Friday at the Syracuse Stage.
Mihigo’s passion for peace in the Congo has been unwavering since his move to the United States. His concern for the genocide still occurring in his home country, where many of his extended kin still reside, is potent in his tone.
“Parents cannot provide for their children,” Mihigo said. “That’s the color of a child of war.”
Mihigo explains the trials and tribulations faced by those in the Congo, and he’s tragically well-versed on the subject. He talks about the economic strife, the rape of Congolese women and the perpetual danger faced by locals across the region.
He talked about the greed exhibited by those using Congolese territory as a forum for hunting for minerals, exploiting and killing millions of citizens in their wake.
This greed is exhibited in one scene of “Cry for Peace,” where cast members Kambale Syaghuswa and Emmanuel Ndeze banter back and forth, discussing the violence and maliciousness that goes into being a “boy soldier” in the Congo. At one point, they discussed a scene one of the men witnessed, where he saw children fighting over common fruit.
“Sometimes they kill each other over an avocado,” Syaghuswa said. “When there are millions of avocados.”
Offstage, Mihigo goes on, providing details about the tumultuous relationship between Rwanda and the Congo, and the disruption caused in his country when Hutu refugees from Rwanda had to flee to the Congo.
During his time at SU, Mihigo remembers hearing Paul Rusesabagina speak at Hendricks Chapel. Rusesabagina is a survivor from Rwandan genocide who is the inspiration for the plot of Academy Award-winner “Hotel Rwanda.” Mihigo, a 2007 alumnus, noted the way that “Hotel Rwanda” served as a tool to tell the story of a vicious genocide.
But it told the story of the past. Congolese genocide is very much in the present.
And to tell the story of an ongoing tragedy takes an altogether different process. Mihigo knew that the story must be told, and that people must be reached and informed about the situation in the Congo, but uniting the Congolese refugees in the Syracuse area presented an unusual challenge.
“Coming here, we’re like enemies to each other,” said Mihigo, referring to the different Congolese families now located in Syracuse. “You don’t know the person. You just know the tribe.”
The journey started with a dinner. After meeting with each family one on one, Mihigo brought them together for a dinner — a test, as Mihigo put it — to see exactly how difficult a union between families of different tribes would be.
The fear and discomfort was palpable between tribes traditionally opposed to one another, but something else was present as well. When Mihigo turned on some music native to the Congo during the dinner, the guests were elated to hear something from their home country. It was this moment — this discovery of a common denominator between opposing forces — that gave Mihigo hope that his vision for a unified community was possible.
The next step was a soccer match.
Mihigo invited the community to partake in a friendly soccer game at Barry Park, another test to see exactly how deep the animosity ran among each other. Mihigo himself opted to referee. The match was a success.
“They all loved it very much,” Mihigo said. “They forgot the hatred. They don’t even know. They had no idea. So I said OK, there is hope. Things can work.”
It was after that point that Mihigo set to work organizing the play and finding a way to tell the Congolese story. His first creation, a fictional piece titled “Unsung” and written in English, Mihigo’s fourth language, was what he brought to Kyle Bass, a playwright and dramaturg at Syracuse Stage.
While Bass was not sure about the original fictional script, he was struck by the nature of the Congolese community. He called Ping Chong, a playwright with whom he had collaborated before on a piece called “Tales of the Salt City,” and Chong expressed immediate interest.
“I actually wrote a play about the 19th-century history with the rubber genocide,” Chong said. “I already knew about the Congo and was fascinated.”
Chong and Bass began the process of writing the show in 2010. While Mihigo had originally presented a piece of fiction, Chong and Bass decided to move in a different direction and encouraged the members of the cast to share their own stories from refugee life to move the narrative of the play.
Each cast member is ultimately telling his or her own story, although the syntax and actual English rhetoric is the result of Chong and Bass’s skilled playwriting. The one exception is Beatrice Neema, who, according to Chong and Bass, is acting the part on behalf of one who cannot speak.
Mihigo appreciates the difficulty faced by Neema in playing such a role.
“Most women back home, they don’t tell their stories because of the shame,” Mihigo said. “She is very brave.”
Neema’s scenes in the play were originally all in French, with cast mate Mona de Vestel translating her aria. Yet Neema was not satisfied with this, and was determined to participate in the English dialogue of the play.
“When we first met her, she spoke three words, or four. Thank you, hello, yes, no,” Bass said. “She was committed to doing it in English. And that brings its own challenge now. But her English has grown remarkably. I mean, remarkably.”
Chong and Bass acknowledged the difficulty of working with a cast where English was not the primary language. As Chong noted, the fact that they knew some English actually, in ways, made the process more difficult — the cast members knew enough not to merit a translator, but not enough to understand the subtle nuances of the script.
Mostly, though, the writers marveled at the polyglots that made up their cast, almost all of whom spoke English as their fourth language. They came to view the language barrier as an opportunity to challenge their audience.
For Bass, one of the most rewarding parts of the show came when the crew first started working with the projections, flashing different Congolese images behind the cast members as they performed their dialogues and their arias.
When the cast members turned around for the first time to view the images themselves in rehearsal, they immediately reacted to the images. They began pointing out their former villages, parts of the Congo that they remembered. Some actually took out their phones to snap a picture of the places they used to call home. Bass realized they were literally looking back.
He realized how difficult and undesirable a move to a new home must be for these people.
“It’s not just, ‘Let’s move to America,’” Bass said. “It’s life and death.”
Chong agreed with his collaborator, feeling that such a transition is a groundbreaking change, and believed the American view that immigrants look forward to a shift into a new life is an ignorant one.
Additionally, Chong commented on his own role as a co-writer and director of the show, and how it related to the relationship between the Congo and the United States.
“We in the west have been responsible for their misery,” Chong stated emphatically. “And we owe them something.”
As for Mihigo, his own views of countries at peace not afflicted by the horrors he experienced growing up could be surmised in one word: fortunate.
Said Mihigo: “When you have the chance and are in a country at peace, you need to be happy and recognize it. Take advantage of the opportunities.”
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