Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bogotá Prison Pageant, Part III

Every year, the national women's prison in Colombia puts on a beauty pageant in which each cell block elects its own candidates to represent them - a queen and a queen mother. Our artists were down in Bogotá for the pageant in 2011, and what you're about to hear is from the interviews with the contestants and inmates there. This material was performed and recorded live at 92YTribeca in NY. First up is Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Jeimi (Willy) and next up is Florencia Lozano as Jessica. Maria Elena Ramirez closes out this episode as Ana Yolanda, Queen Mother for one of the cell blocks. Interviews for this episode were conducted by Adriana Mejía. The performances you just heard were directed by Steven Cosson. Thanks for listening. Subscribe, rate, review!

Click HERE for our research photos from the pageant!


Monday, January 28, 2013

Meet the R&D: Carly Mensch

Here's a post by R&D Group playwright Carly Mensch, who is currently in Tanzania working on an investigation for her new play. For more info about our R&D Group, click HERE! Many thanks to Carly for writing this post for us!

Mambo Civilians,

Greetings from the Evangelical Lutheran Hotel in lakeside Bukoba, Tanzania. Thousands of miles of rusty-red roads and banana plantations from the nearest theater. In other words: prime real estate for a Civilians’ style investigation.

I am in Bukoba chasing a ghost.

Some background: My boyfriend and I first came to Bukoba in 2010 to research his PhD dissertation on a bizarre footnote in Tanzanian medical history. During this month-long trip, we met a guy named Raymond who became not only our translator and guide, but also our friend and older brother. He was ambitious, dynamic, charismatic, opinionated—a former professional soccer player and teacher who could opine for hours about the problems of the region and his plans to fix them. He was well-traveled—with friends from The Netherlands, Finland, Belgium—and helped start a handful of NGO projects in the area. He also lived a very dramatic life. His stories sounded like James Bond adventures—with tales of fighting bad guys in Siberia and sleeping in ice holes in Finland.

Raymond in 2010 after buying a mushroom from the side of the road.
His life-story could have filled ten blockbuster movies. And then, in December 2011, Raymond died. We learned through an email. It was sudden and surprising. Raymond was only 38.

Soon after, we learned details about his lifethat were shocking and confusing. We got angry. We got sad. We got curious.

Cut to the present.

I am back in Bukoba, talking to anyone who knew Raymond.


Why investigate the life of a man who wasn’t famous, made no major contribution to society, and died relatively unnoticed?

Why single out the life of this man, this individual, to mine for larger meaning?

And what business does the theater -- a live and predominantly Western medium – have to do with a dead African guy?

For now, I have more questions than answers.

But, as in the beginnings of most projects, it’s not about answers.
It’s about listening.
Here are some snippets from my adventures in listening.


A coffee shop, Bukoba style. On the ground in front of a concrete building painted with 7-Up ads, a man crouches over a piping hot metal kettle on a portable coal-burning stove. This is Hamza, who runs the place. In this alley-cum-curbside-nook, he serves coffee to a small entourage of regulars, all old men, who sit on low wooden benches covered with flattened cardboardboxes. My boyfriend and I tell him we are waiting for a man named Ramadani King. Hamza laughs. “Yes. There is a King. And his name is Ramadani.”

The coffee shop, empty one morning.
While we wait, a shoeshine cleans the red dust off an old man’s shoes. The little Turkish style coffee cup is so hot it burns my hands. A drunkmasai teenager tries to get us to buy him a soda.

Ramadani King rides his signature Vespa.  In the background: Hamza's
Ramadani shows up on a Vespa wearing a flamingo pink Oxford shirt and a leather satchel. He’s about 70, has a gap between his front teeth and speaks with a deep, gravely voice. Ramadani gives us big hugs—he has met my boyfriend before, entertained him at his house. He was a family friend of Raymond’s and once studied sociology. (Raymond called him the smartest man he ever met.)

Ramadani King on the footbridge to his house
This coffee shop is Ramadani’s haunt. He is even distantly related to Hamza, though it is hard to tell in a culture where everyone calls each other “brother” and “cousin” and “mama.” Ramadani tells us about Raymond’s funeral in his homevillage of Muruku: “So many people. People from all over the world.” It was a Catholic mass, even though Raymond was lapsed.

Ramadani tells us what he knows, but reminds us that he is from a different generation than Raymond. “He had many, many friends his age. There were three boys in the town who would follow him everywhere. I think they worked for him. You should find them.” 

So—with a few leads—we let the conversation meander. He tells us about poverty in Kagera region. About his own poverty. About the boredom of old age. At the end, we run off to another meeting; Ramadani refills his cup. He will most likely sit here for the better part of the day.

Later, I write in my little grey notebook: “Deep voice. Funeral. Who could play R.K.?”

A photo of Ramadani King with another friend of Raymond's named Happy

William runs Bukoba’s one and only tour company—Kiroyera (“Bright Sun”) Tours. His office is on the beach, near the local fishermen and ferry dock, where he has also built a handful of traditional “bandas” for tourists to sleep in. ($5 a night!)

William at his tour agency
I meet William because he once started an NGO called BUDAP that Raymond was involved with. BUDAP teaches handicapped locals (often polio victims) how to make drums and other handicrafts to sell. Raymond and William were friends, drinking buddies. Even though Raymond supposedly drank William under the table, often staying out til 2 or 3 in the morning downing tall glasses of Serengeti.

(They’re also two of the only young guys in the town who speak perfect English. Usually it’s the elders who were educated under the British system who speak fluently.)

William sits in a leather swivel chair facing a laptop and a miniature Tanzanian flag. On the wall is a photo of him with two friends: the sons of arch-enemies Ugandan Generalissimo Idi Amin Dada and former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.

I describe the project to William. That I’m trying to collect stories about Raymond for some sort of ambiguous writer project. He nods, says “Yes, okay” and then proceeds to tell me the chronology of their friendship.

He talks much of Raymond’s charisma. His popularity. William described most people around here as shy, especially around outsiders. Raymond, however, was different. He was confident to the point of brazen –seeking out every foreigner who passed through Bukoba. (William called him a “fly trap,” which sounds a little nefarious, to me. But maybe it’s one of those lost-in-translation things.)

“What made him like that?” I ask.

William’s response: “He was just like that.”

William gives me some more leads. He shows me photos of Raymond’s funeral, naming as many people as he can. I start getting the sense that I am losing Raymond—getting further and further from the tumultuous rockstar personality I remember, reducing him to mere anecdote.

Raymond was a great storyteller, often weaving fact and fiction into an entrancing tapestry. The stories about him, however, are far less exciting. Normal. Black-and-white. How do I deal with this?

Because really, the best person to tell the story of Raymond is… Raymond.


We visit the Mukwenda family farm in rural Muruku, where Raymond is buried in a small flower-lined plot about a hundred feet from the house.

Mr. Mukwenda answers the door with a frayed pink-checkered towel wrapped around his waist and three white plastic razors in his hand. We learn his wife is away visiting her sick mother; he is all alone.

He seems caught off guard, embarrassed. We apologize for not sending notice of our arrival (we didn’t have his number) and offer him a meagre loaf of bread. He invites us in. He recognizes my boyfriend immediately. “I have been expecting you to return.”

We offer sporadic words of comfort and condolences. Sometimes we trade small-talk (“How is America?” “Cold.” / “How is your stay in Bukoba?” “Good.”), but most often we lapse into long silences. 

Above us—wasps fly in and out of nests adorning the ceiling.

And there in the corner, looking down on us all, is a photo of Raymond. He has on a very serious expression and wears a hat that reads: “FINLAND.”

At one point, Raymond’s older brother Edmund wanders into the room. He is wearing Raymond’s signature army vest and cargo pants. He doesn’t say much; just sits in a chair in the corner.

We returned the next week to find Mr. Mukwenda in better spirits. With Raymond's brother Edmund.
After what feels like hours, we bring out a handful of photos of Raymond—the true purpose of our visit. Mr. Mukwenda flips through them. One photo is a close-up of Raymond, smiling, holding a giant mushroom he has bought from the side of the road. Mr. Mukwenda puts down the photos; he turns quiet.

We try to ask him a few questions, but it seems pointless. Even though it’s been a year since Raymond’s death, he has the air of a broken man.

Before we leave, he tells us, “There is nothing more bad than to bury a son.”

My project, put most simply, is about life and death. About loss and legacy. Family and friendship. I may be thousands of miles away from the nearest proscenium, but the stories I'm finding hit close to home. It's a refreshing reminder.

Okay, the internet cafe clock is winding down. Off to do some more listening. Next on my list: a former teammate of Raymond's. Good thing I played soccer as a kid.

- Carly

Bukoba Town, Tanzania
Thanks again to Carly for writing this post and sharing her investigative process with us!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Occupy #S17, The Podcast, Part II

Occupy Wall Street had its one-year anniversary on September 17, 2012. Civilians artists were out for that entire year conducting interviews with the protesters. We presented some of those interviews on September 17 at Joe's Pub, along with thirteen other colleges and theater groups from around the country, who also put on their own performances of Occupy interviews on the same day. This week's podcast episode, recorded at our live performance at Joe's Pub, kicks off with Dan Domingues as Billy in an interview conducted just before #S17. Next is an interview performed by Emily Rossell that was conducted after Zuccotti Park was shut down. This episode closes out with Caitlin Montclare, Alex Nolan, Amanda Ruzza, and Liz Kelly perform The Punk Prayer: the song that was performed by Pussy Riot in Russia that led to some of the members serving a two-year term in prison. Interviews for this podcast were conducted by Dan Domingues and Kelly McCreary, and the live performance at Joe's Pub was directed by Mia Rovegno. Thanks for listening - subscribe, rate, and review us!

Click HERE to watch videos from the event!


Friday, January 4, 2013

Featured Associate Artist: Quincy Tyler Bernstine

Happy New Year, everybody! Meet our January Featured Associate Artist. Many thanks to Quincy for participating! Click HERE to see our 2012 Featured Associate Artists' answers to these questions.

Name: Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Year Joined The Civilians: 2001. I'm one of the original members.
Where you're from: Born in Madison, WI. Raised in Washington, DC.
What City You're Living In: Queens, NY

How did you first get involved with The Civilians?
I actually went to graduate school with Steve. We were in the same class at UCSD. When he was forming the company, he asked me to participate.

What have you done with us, both in terms of investigating and performing?
Let's of my "interviews" made it into Gone Missing. The guy who is desperately trying to explain to the cops (while being arrested) that he lost his id? I overheard that from my bedroom window late one night. I also performed a handful (or less) of performances of Gone Missing (on one of it's tours) back in the day (I went in for Alison Weller). I was in the original workshop production of Paris Commune. I also did the Ladies and (I Am) Nobody's Lunch. Oh, and Mr. Burns (not the Woolly production but I was a part of that original process). I think that's it.

Tell us about something that surprised you, either in an interview, in using the investigative method, or in a rehearsal process.
Few things surprise me anymore. How sad it that?!

Why has it been interesting to work in this way?
It's so easy to get caught up in the mundane details of our own lives. Or, let me not speak for everybody. It's easy for me to do that. What I love about this type of process is that it forces you, if only for a brief time, to think outside yourself. I love that The Civilians celebrates the fact that everyone has a story or, at least, something to say. And that there's artistic value in that.

What is the last project you worked on outside of The Civilians?/What are you currently working on?
I recently closed a production at Soho Rep. WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENATATION... The title goes on and on. It was an incredible experience. [Editor's note: The play is by Civilians' R&D Group writer Jackie Sibblies Drury!] I start rehearsals in early February for a show at The Public. It's a play called Neva by Chilean writer/director, Guillermo Calderon.

What artist has had the biggest impact on you?
That's a difficult question for me to answer. I am constantly being impacted by artists...those I work with on a daily basis, and those whom I've never met. But if I had to give one name it would probably be Lynn Nottage.

What’s the last play you saw?
What Rhymes with America at the Atlantic.

What’s your favorite bad movie?
Probably, Dirty Dancing.

Do you like sports?
I love sports. RG3 is all I have to say. I prolonged my Christmas vacation so that I could be in DC when the Dallas Cowboys got their asses kicked. And they did. It was awesome. I expect the Redskins to win the Superbowl this year. GO SKINS. I played soccer for 10 years growing up (and even into my freshman year of college), lacrosse, and softball.

Question from Last Month’s Featured Associate Artist (playwright Bess Wohl): 
What's the meaning of life?
Man, I wish I knew...I guess to make your life have as much meaning as possible. Whatever that means.

What question would you like us to ask our next Featured Associate Artist?
If you didn't work in theater, what would you be doing career-wise?

Click HERE for Quincy's bio!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Bogotá Prison Pageant, Part II

Our artists conducted interviews with the women in El Buen Pastor, the national women's prison in Bogotá, Colombia. Every year, the prison hosts a beauty pageant in which each cell block elects its own candidates to represent them - a queen and a queen mother - and they work together to create costumes, floats and dances for the main event, which is kind of like Carnival. Our last Bogotá Prison Pageant episode focused on the High Security section of the prison. The prison is divided into different cell blocks according to crimes committed. This week, we're heading into the General Population at El Buen Pastor to give you an intimate look into these women’s daily lives and their preparation for the pageant. This material was performed and recorded live at 92YTribeca in NY. First up is Ana Lamadrid performing an inmate, followed by our Associate Artist Jenny Morris as a Canadian prisoner. Matt Dellapina performs an interview with Mauricio, a pastor who works with the inmates, and the episode closes out with Flor De Liz Perez as the Queen Mother of Cell Block 9. Interviews for this were conducted by Alejandro Jaramillo Hoyos, Lorena Lopez, and Adriana Osorio. The performances you just heard were directed by Steven Cosson. Thanks for listening. Subscribe, rate, review!

Click HERE for our research photos from the pageant!