I remember him clearly. His mouth was cracked wide open in a guffaw; a tall, attractive young man, in his early 20s, leaning against a brick wall at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda. With chestnut eyes and skin as blue-black as a midnight sky, he could have been Rwanda’s Next Top Model. But my eye was caught by the scar that sliced clear across his forehead like a crescent moon, and the stump of his left arm. He was a victim of the 1994 genocide; somehow he had survived. I tried not to stare, but here – or so it seemed to me – was the past, the present and the future of Rwanda.
Children of Killers by Katori Hall
LondonCity Academy Bristol and Bristol Old Vic
It was the summer of 2009, and I had just returned from a genocide studies conference, where I visited memorials and talked with victims – some of whom had visible scars, some whose scars were buried deep beneath the surface. I remembered shaking the hand of a man who had killed; all I could do was stare at it – barely bigger than my own – and imagine. I will never forget the stacks of femurs and skulls stored in a tin shed on the hill near the village of Bisisero. Who could?
Later, when I sat down in the National Theatre cafe with Anthony Banks, who commissions the Connections festival of new plays written to be performed by young people, I was still wrestling with the weight of what I had seen. Having had little experience of youth theatre beforehand, I’d assumed that the brief required something light: a comedy, perhaps set in a boarding school. Definitely no swearing. But I knew that if I was going to write a piece, I would need to deal with what I had just witnessed.
So I was hesitant to bring up my idea for the story that became Children of Killers, the tale of three young men who are haunted by history’s ghosts on the eve of their fathers’ homecoming. Rwanda has been revisited many times in both fact and fiction, but few British plays have dwelt on its aftermath; I was worried that a play about the aftermath of genocide would be too challenging for young performers. But I asked anyway, and Anthony bristled in excitement.
As well as commissioning new work, the Connections programme helps writers develop it by conducting workshops with young people before the plays are sent out. So, the summer before the school year, the National sent Anthony over to conduct a workshop with American teenagers fromYouth Onstage!, a New York-based youth theatre and education centre. This support proved to be key in the play’s development. For a week we tussled with deep questions: “What was the difference between Hutu and Tutsi? What would it be like to grow up knowing that your father was a killer? How do you stop from being like him? How do we break the cycle?” These intense roundtable discussions allowed me an opportunity to clarify the text, and allowed us to investigate international politics, but also examine ourselves and our experiences. How different was the violence the characters witnessed from the violence many of them as teens had witnessed? The week-long text work culminated into a staged reading of the play for which drew a packed audience of parents, teachers and supporters.
The play soon found a home in the UK: rehearsed by eight different youth groups from Lancaster to London to Bristol. Unfortunately, being based in New York, I never got a chance to see them, but the Facebook production stills and email connected me despite the ocean between us. One of my favourite pictures was from one production of a group of young teenage white girls playing Rwandan children. The message was clear. Though Rwanda is far away, the issues that Rwandan youth deal with are important to all young people, whether they live in Bristol, New York or Kigali. To date, more than 30 productions have been staged – even, via a Portuguese production, in Lisbon. Whether the story is told in English, Portuguese or Kinyarwanda, I hope the message is the same: there is no difference between us and them.