Piet Defraeye

The Performative (Re-? )Iteration of Genocide: Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito and Sandeep Bhagwati’s Lamentations

Performative iteration of genocide narratives can be approached as alternative strategies in dealing with the fragmentation and scrambled dystopian structure of genocidal experience, memory, and trauma.  Two such performative responses are American playwright Erik Ehn’s, Maria Kizito (2004), and Indo-Canadian composer Sandeep Bhagwati’s Lamentations (2009), part of the Racines éphémères research project in Montreal.

Maria Kizito is written in response to the trial in Belgium of a couple of Rwandese Catholic nuns, accused of collaborating with génocidaires. Erik Ehn makes no effort to present a forthright narrative. Instead, he combines the physicalization and exteriorization of drama, with the subjective voice and interiorizing movement of poetry into a polyphonous, meditative mediation of in-the-moment re-enactment, memory, and response. Needless to say that the play presents huge challenges in performance.

Sandeep Bhagwati’s Lamentations, on the other hand, takes witness narrative as a point of departure, with the community-based Montreal Life-Stories, in which Montreal citizens are invited to talk about their traumatic experiences as survivors. They then hone in on their gestural responses during these narratives, and proceed, with actors and dancers, supported by a musical composition, to re-iterate/re-enact the memory/experience in physical dance.

While Maria Kizito foregrounds a discursive approach to trauma in its poeticity and tropes, Lamentations literally strips away re-iterative words and brings a (re-?) performance of what Roach (and Schechner) call “twice behaved behavior.” Both projects raise fundamental questions in terms of what happens to the original traumatic experience, the ethics involved in the (re-)iteration, and the value of re-presentational approaches in terms of affect and hermeneutics.


Piet Defraeye teaches dramaturgy, theory, criticism and directing at the University of Alberta’s Department of Drama. He is a graduate of the University of Louvain, U.C. Dublin, and University of Toronto.

He directs for the stage and does production dramaturgy. His critical publications include essays on interdisciplinary topics including Shakespeare and film, painting and theatre, German theatre, opera and gender theory and Reception. Apart from an ongoing focus on strategies of provocation for the stage, he is presently conducting a large research project on the figure of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, assassinated during his first year in office, as he appears in a variety of cultural discourse, including plays, popular culture, paintings, poetry and novels. He is currently a guest professor at Universiteit Antwerpen (2016-17).