On Tuesday, the Schwarzman Center will welcome award-winning playwright Toto Kisaku to speak about his experiences creating art as a way of survival.
Detained for putting on plays criticizing the Congolese government, Kisaku arrived in the United States in late 2015 seeking political asylum, which he was granted in March 2018. His one-man play, “Requiem For An Electric Chair,” which he wrote upon his arrival in America, tells the story of his persecution and eventual exile from Congo and opens with his interview with a U.S. immigration officer. Through this narrative, Kisaku shares the story of his arrest, imprisonment and near-death in Congo and the way art ultimately saved his life. When he was in illegal detention, Kisaku wrote: “Basal’ ya Bazoba” — which translates to “stupid workers” — about children who are accused of witchcraft. This story provided some positivity that helped him cope during his imprisonment.
“The guy who saved my life was one of the people who identified himself through the piece,” Kisaku said. “He saw that piece and saved me. Putting the story on stage in the theater felt the most honest way to present my story and was my only weapon to tell my story.”
In his work, Kisaku explores themes of transgression, oppression and poverty, often challenging the boundaries between performance and daily life, which allows his audience to identify with his stories.
Kisaku emphasized the role of the artist in protesting unjust political practices.
“Today, a group of people is deciding what kind of democracy the world should take. For me, that’s a way of imposing the word ‘dictatorship,’” Kisaku said. “[Artists] are not breaking rules, we are just trying to put a piece of wood under an unbalanced table. But there are a group of people who say the table should be unbalanced to shift power towards them. The artist is not making art to destroy the world or to lead people in a bad direction.”
The event is hosted by the Schwarzman Center alongside the Yale Council of African Studies and will take place in the Center’s Underground.
Jennifer Newman, Associate Artistic Director of the Schwarzman Center, said Kisaku was a perfect speaker for the YSC spring season.
“Centering artistic disciplines as a way of creating space for interdisciplinary collaborations and conversations underscores our programming at YSC,” Newman said. “Kisaku is an artist whose multi-layered work exemplifies the arts and ideas approach. Collaborating with campus partners like CAS is essential to uplifting and amplifying the incredible breadth of work happening at Yale.”
Ultimately, Kisaku and Newman hope that students will be encouraged to look outside their comfort zone and turn their attention to what is happening in the world around them. For Kisaku in particular, it’s important that students are made aware of Congo’s political and economic climate rather than the tourism for which it is famous.
For Newman, storytelling is a way of communicating and evaluating the role of truth in society.
“When I think about the role that storytelling plays in our understanding of the world we live in, I think that specifically playwrights get into a question and explore those questions through scenarios. Specifically, now, we’re living in a world, where critical race theory is being put up, and works are being censored in particular counties. I think as an artist, “Risking it all” is an important way of evaluating the role of the storyteller in African traditions, and seeing how shared values are communicated through the storyteller.”
Kisaku also emphasized the importance of the arts in today’s difficult political climate and in combating those who censor words.
“They are showing how the world is impacted by the system,” Kisaku said. “That’s why political figures are afraid of artistic expression and of leaving space for artists to express themselves and how they see the world. The theater is telling us directly who we are, who we could be, and who we should be.”
Kisaku established the K-Mu Theater in 2003.