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The Line that’s crossed when people do evil

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With a genetic Holocaust memory and living in a country where xenophobia rears its head all too regularly, veteran theatre practitioner Gina Shmukler wrote and directed the thought-provoking piece of theatre that is The Line.

In 1988, my matric year, I was extremely privileged to attend the first ever March of the Living with the late Ronnie Mink.

It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Among many powerful memories, I remember so vividly looking out of the bus window as we got closer to the camps, in this instance Majdanek, and later Auschwitz-Birkenau, and being amazed at the proximity of the villages.

How did this happen? I wondered. How did ordinary people who were once neighbours turn to foes?

I knew my Zaida’s story. The day the Nazis entered their village in Ivye (Belarus), he was in another village, painting.  His family was hidden in a makeshift hideout. A Nazi officer lifted the “trapdoor”, saw the family, and replaced the lid and left. What had evoked his humanity in that moment?

While living in New York, I was given a beautiful book called Skyline written by South African novellist Patricia Schonstein Pinnock, and published in 2000. It traces the journey of a Mozambican man fleeing the war in his country, crossing the Kruger National Park game reserve by foot and eventually finding himself in a flat at the bottom of Long Street in Cape Town. Skyline beautifully captures the refugee experience.

I share the above because as theatre-makers, so much of what we witness and experience finds its way into our work. This was true for me as I started my Master’s in Drama in 2011.

With the horrific outbreak of the South African xenophobic attacks in May 2008, Skyline  became the inspiration for my studies, but was replaced by our own refugee crisis. It is these stories that formed the narrative of what would become The Line, a new South African play.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris in conversation with Elie Wiesel said: “The real question is not the question of the crimes against mankind, against humanity. The real question is that these crimes are crimes of mankind, crimes of humanity.”

Over a five-month period I conducted interviews in Soweto with victims and perpetrators of the xenophobic attacks.

I became extremely engaged with the stories of the victims and while that was my focus for a time, I was still searching for ”that” thing I wanted to explore.

I had my light-bulb moment when introduced to the ground-breaking work of Dr Jonathan Shay, which examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey with the experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Shay offers a psychological explanation of the process of moving from good to evil and “why good people do bad things”. I became excited and realised that the story I wanted to tell lay with the perpetrator. I wanted to understand how ordinary people kill; how a neighbour turns into a violent foe. I wanted to warn the audience of what Shay describes as the “fragility of goodness” and, to quote Shay, the extent to which ”our own good character is vulnerable to destruction by bad moral luck”.

Set against the backdrop of the xenophobic attacks, The Line speaks to the fragility of humanity and the delicate line between victim, perpetrator, witness and bystander.

For the next two years, The Line toured both locally and internationally, garnering Naledi Theatre Award nominations for Best Production of a Play, Best New South African Script, Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role (Play), Best Theatre Sound Design / Sound Effects and Best Theatre Set Design.

It is my belief that as theatre-makers, we need to find the psychological and psychic truth in our work. We need to confront our spirituality and engage with what it is to be human.

The Line asks of its audience: What is our collective responsibility? Where were we during this time? What are we doing to prevent this from happening again? Are we indeed bystanders until we become victims, or will we become perpetrators, “our own good character … vulnerable to destruction by bad moral luck”?

With the global refugee crisis and our own local battles against  xenophobia, we have decided to bring The Line back for a short season at the Redhill Arts Festival.

Gina Shmukler is an actress, director, and theatre maker

Tickets are available for 11h00 on 30 July and 19h00 on 31 July at redhillartsfestival.co.za

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