Last month, I attended a performance of an extraordinary one-man play by the young actor and playwright Ery Nzaramba.
Split/Mixed is a coming-of-age tale – except that the coming-of-age happens in the middle of the Rwandan genocide, precipitated by the shooting down in 1994 of a plane carrying airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira.
Like Nzaramba himself, Edy, the central character in the play was born in Belgium and returned to Rwanda with his family as a young child. He has a normal, middle class childhood, attending a good school, listening to music, playing football – until his family is ripped apart, along with the country, and he, his parents and siblings have to flee for their lives.
The play revolves around the answer to the question – innocently asked one night in a club – “where are you from?” Should he answer, “Rwanda,” knowing that will lead to a whole string of more difficult questions? (“Where you there when...?” “Which ‘side’ did you belong to?” and, always hanging over every conversation, “Are you a victim or a killer?”) Or should he dodge the issue by answering “Belgium” and thus deny his past?
Nzaramba talking about his play on Africa Vox
Working on a completely bare stage, Nzaramba brings to life all the different members of his family, his friends at school, and the people he encounters on his flight from the country, even the girl he falls in love with. Working with director Jude Christian, he found body language and turns of phrase to encapsulate each one.
“But then,” as he says,” you have to stop thinking about it and trust your body.”
And somehow the magic works, even when he is holding conversations with himself.
Asked about his writing process after the performance of Split/Mixed at the May Fair theatre, Nzaramba explained that he originally wrote perhaps five times what we now see.
“After that we cut and cut and cut to form the play, put in rhythm and rhyme in places. It was both painful and fantastic. I was building up barriers and taking them down. Even I don’t know any more what’s true and what’s not.”
Split/Mixed is deeply moving, even harrowing at times. But it is also extremely funny. It has been produced in conjunction with Tamasha Theatre, who are now trying to raise the money to take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe. There is a Crowdfunder appeal running until 12th April, and I urge you to support it if you can. This play deserves as wide an audience as possible!