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A few weeks ago, Womaniala Gerald, who works with African refugees, called family after family on his list of clients, rounding up women and men to hit the road from City Heights for an evening in La Jolla. As is occasionally the case when wrangling refugee parents with kids at home, the effort wasn’t seamless. The bus got to La Jolla after the characters had already begun to perform the play Ruined, La Jolla Playhouse’s current offering.
“Of course we were late,” Gerald — the name he goes by — told me wryly.
But the group of 24 refugees who’ve lived most of their years in the Congo, Uganda and Liberia, made it to the theater and only missed about the first 20 minutes. And they loved the play, Gerald said, rushing back to their seats a few minutes into the intermission so they wouldn’t miss anything more.
“Everyone was grateful,” he said. “They immediately realized that what they were seeing was their actual experience.”
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009. It centers around a brothel in the Congo and tells the story of Congolese women ravaged by war. Themes of tribal violence, confusion between government and rebels and the horrendous sexual violence against women feature heavily in the story.
Many of Gerald’s clients were born into similar circumstances, he said.
“What was being presented was not a new thing,” he said. “Just a reminder that this is the kind of life that we’ve lived through.”
The Alliance for African Assistance is one of three nonprofit organizations the La Jolla Playhouse is partnering with during this run of Ruined. One of the pieces of the partnership is an agreement to direct 20 percent of the ticket sales revenues to the organizations on particular nights. The Alliance’s night is tomorrow, Dec. 3, so tickets bought for tomorrow’s production will have the portion of their cost diverted to the nonprofit. (A similar setup for Invisible Children is next Friday, Dec. 10, and the Women’s International Center‘s night was Nov. 28.)
But the piece of the partnership that was most compelling to me was this busload of refugees that headed up to the play on Nov. 16.
I wanted to hear a bit of their stories. Gerald asked two of the women who’d gone with him to the play, Situmai Noella and Swedi Riziki, to meet me in the Alliance for African Assistance office on El Cajon Boulevard Wednesday afternoon. While we talked about the play, Riziki held her seven-month-old daughter, Nehema Oredi, who was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania.
While we spoke, Gerald translated for us in Swahili.
Everything that was presented was depicting the kind of lifestyle that these refugees have lived, Gerald said.
But even though the stories were hard, many of them were happy to have their reality told to American audiences, he said.
“Because there are times when they tell people they have gone through a mess and people will never understand it until the truth is seen,” he said.
And it’s a reminder even for them, he said. “There are times when we come here and forget about what we have gone through and forget about those ones that are back there.”
The two women told me some of those realities.
Noella was born in the Congo. She left when she was 30 years old. She has four kids, aged five through 16. She and her husband have been in the United States living in City Heights for a little over a year.
Noella left the Congo during a time after a war starting in 2002 when people were fighting between tribes and religions. Women were raped; the army took advantage of them and abused them sexually, especially the teenagers and the young girls. Many people lost their lives. They lost their clan, lost their property.
Noella married someone from another tribe, a tribe that was at war with her tribe. Some of the fighting in the Congo was over this kind of intermarriage, bucking tribal tradition. Her husband’s father was killed over this. Noella’s sister was also killed.
“When she witnessed the bloodshed that was raining on her land, she decided to leave and she forced herself out of the country,” Gerald explained.
Noella’s family left their home in Baraka for a refugee camp in another country, Burundi, where the UN processed them for resettlement to the United States.
She spoke in a soft voice her conclusions after everything she’s seen.
“The fact is, war never ends,” she said. “The problems in Africa will never come to an end. There are times when people get to be confused that there is peace. The fact remains, there is never peace. And there is not total peace. There may be peace, partial. But peace never reigns in our homelands.”
Her new friend Riziki lived far away from Baraka in a place called Simbi in the Congo until she was 28 years old, when she fled into the neighboring Tanzania. She lived there for 10 years. Riziki is a single mother; she came to the United States five months ago with six kids. Her husband is still in Tanzania. She has no contact with him.
I asked if there were specific things in the play that resonated with the women. Riziki’s eyes lit up and she raised her voice from the whisper she’d been speaking in.
There was a scene in the play where guns were involved and money was demanded from people. The issue of guns alone reminds Riziki of several things that happened in her life.
Some years ago, the rebel group in the Congo called Mai-Mai was targeting civilians. They would rob them of their property and take money, threatening to kill them if they wouldn’t surrender. They stopped Riziki, demanding that she give them money if she wanted her life spared.
“She always resisted, always resisted, but the problem was they knew where she stayed,” Gerald said. “So every time they would come there.”
When they came for the fifth time, she denied them again and decided to change her location.
“So what those guys in the play were trying to show was something that reminded her exactly of that time,” Gerald said.
Gerald himself wasn’t born into this kind of strife. He spent most of his childhood in Uganda in school until his parents, who were involved in a different political group than the one in power, moved to a refugee camp. He learned there “what the reality was,” he says. The 27-year-old has been in the United States for three years. He works for the Alliance, picking up families when they first arrive at the airport and helping them acclimate. In December, he said he has about 100 people he’s responsible for.
“I spend much of my time with them and trying to teach them the customs of this land,” he said. “I become this mentor to them.”
After watching the play, the women said they went home and told their kids what they’d seen.
Gerald relayed: “The kids were saying, ‘Oh, Mom, this is the kind of life you have gone through. You did good to bring us [to the United States]. Because if we were back home, it would have been the exact same thing.’”
After hearing all of this, I wanted to know: Isn’t it hard to watch this story unfold in a theater, with singing and dancing?
“Suffering is part of life,” Gerald said. “There are times we suffer. We believe these plays should continue so that we don’t forget how much we have suffered and where we came from. It’s just a reminder and enables us to rethink, have a fresh hope and a fresh mind.”
I’m the arts editor for VOSD. Know about something happening in local arts I should be writing? You can leave a comment, send me an email at email@example.com or call me: 619.325.0531. You can also follow me on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.