“Theater for me is an art form that can help make a political, living change and build community,” says playwright Catherine Filloux. “It’s a dialogue I’ve seen emerge from my plays, one that I’d like to keep generating in audiences around the world.”
In Filloux’s new play, Dog and Wolf, Joseph, a U.S. asylum lawyer wants to win asylum for Jasmina, a Bosnian refugee. But Jasmina comes from a world Joseph’s laws can’t regulate. “Like a dog and a wolf, at dusk it’s hard to tell the difference…where does the dog end off and the beast begin?” says Jasmina.
“The play is written in the staggered poetry of the effort to connect and articulate,” explains Filloux. The use of poetry here, as in her other plays, also illuminates the beauty of the human spirit under extreme duress, and the hard truths of her characters’ conflicts. In Dog and Wolf, her lyrical language grounds themes of identity, law, sexuality, family, and the choices that we make to achieve asylum.
“Entre chien et loup,” between dog and wolf, is an expression Filloux grew up with. Literally, it means a time of day. But it also speaks to the limit between the familiar and the dangerous, between the domestic and the wild. In Naked Translations, Céline Graciet defines it as “an uncertain threshold between hope and fear.”
In many ways, Catherine Filloux has been writing about this complicated threshold for over 20 years, penning plays about human rights issues– particularly genocide, honor killings, violence against women, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She says that because of her continuing work with survivors of genocide, especially Cambodians, she has personally seen the symptoms and she has seen them often. “The legacy of genocide and human rights abuses is PTSD. Inherent to PTSD are intrusive memories that come out in the form of nightmare: memories and hauntings that are more real than actual night and day.”
Filloux feels fierce compassion for those who suffer trauma, and expresses that the theatre allows her to write stories that “affirm the courage, humor, and depth of human survival, while also breaking down walls and exposing uncomfortable truths.” She says she feels firsthand the peril of what she writes about. In all of her plays, she explores the complicity of being an American (or more accurately being from the United States), which she considers is always at the center of her own complicity. This questioning of responsibility, injustice, and lack of action, explodes in her characters as they try to find respite. In her play Mary and Myra she sums it up one way in the words of Mary Todd Lincoln speaking to her lawyer, Myra Bradwell (America’s first woman lawyer): “…‘Sanity’ is not easy to define, Myra. It is a vast territory with the tallest of mountains and the lowest of caves...”
As Catherine watches rehearsals for Dog and Wolf in preparation for its February 5th premiere, she finds that she is revisited by people she met in Sarajevo. As actors use videos for research, Catherine recognizes a heroine she spoke to— someone who changed her life—and she feels haunted again. She can also see how Nadia Bowers, the actor playing Jasmina, explores this trauma as she creates her character. For Catherine, this communion between writer and actor, through Nadia’s ability to embody Jasmina, is a kind of poetry in space. “To see someone know what to do with my words is like coming home. That’s what the cast [which also includes Dale Soules and John Daggett] of Dog and Wolf do. My long-time collaborator, director Jean Randich, brings these scenes to life for me onstage. A theater director is a conductor, in an orchestra of words, and Jean does that radiantly.”
I feel I go all the way to bottom and now coming out other side.
And where is that?
I planted radishes in my mother’s garden. Everything in jumble. Nothing like hers. Without the war I never would have come back, never would have known her.
No one ever stand up to me like her and see my weaknesses. Used to hate that as a girl.
She think Eiffel Tower in New York Harbor. (She laughs.)
I was going to take her into Statue of Liberty. Later in life she even start to talk to me about clothes. “What dress did you wear, Fatima? Was it the white one?” “Did you look beautiful?” “Yes, Mama, I looked beautiful.” “Did they say you looked beautiful?” “Yes, Mama, everyone did.”
The Village Voice, on her play, The Beauty Inside, said, “This moving character study pits East against West, tradition against progress, and ambition against conscience, in a drama whose lyrical dialogue evokes the surprising ambivalence of this wrenching battle.” When her characters’ conflicts are battles between self and the legacy of a nation’s history, Filloux often utilizes ties of family, ancestors, and country to “help portray a space onstage that creates a link towards healing from terrible violence.” In Where Elephants Weep—composed by Cambodian composer Him Sophy—for which she wrote the libretto, a master teacher invokes the past for a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge:
(To Sam.) MY BOY, IN THE CYCLE OF RIVERS AND SEAS
THAT EVAPORATE IN THE HOT SUN
TO BECOME CLOUDS THAT WIND TRANSFORMS
INTO RAINDROPS, WE LEARN COMPASSION.
DURING POL POT IT WAS SINK OR SWIM,
YOU NEED TO REMEMBER IT WAS CIRCUMSTANCE.
THE INCREDIBLE LOSS HAPPENED SO FAST
AT THE SPEED OF A VICIOUS STORM
WITH MY OWN EYES I SAW IT UNDONE.
YOU FEEL SHAME BUT THERE IS STILL A BRIDGE
TO WHAT WAS BEFORE, NGA…NGA…NGA…
(Pointing to the land.) I REMEMBER YOUR MOTHER ROCKING YOU
SINGING YOU HER WORDS OF TRUTH.
HER VOICE WOULD SPREAD OUT THROUGH THE TREES,
TRAVELING SOFTLY ON THE BREEZE.
(Showing him.) YOUR PARENTS ARE IN THIS PLACE
I SEE THEM SOMETIMES.
IF YOU STAY A WHILE THEY’LL COME TO YOU.
A dark sense of humor in Filloux’s language is used to express aspects of the human coping mechanism, infusing characters with layers of vulnerability and bouts of light heartedness that emerge at unexpected times. Eyes of the Heart, her play exploring psychosomatic blindness in Cambodian women who are suffering from PTSD, features Thida, a blind Cambodian refugee. It is Thida who ends up guiding the family friend who is supposed to be leading her. After the trauma of the Khmer Rouge, her friend Chhem tries very hard to follow directions for fear of death. Thida, who is blind, can actually see more in this moment.
Hurry, Thida! Please! (Thida drops her cane. Chhem goes to pick it up. We hear the bus pulling away. Chhem is upset.) Well, this is unfortunate. The monk is waiting at the temple, we’ll be late. Don’t worry, it is not your fault. Come. (Leads Thida back to their position away from the bus stop.) The sign says we cannot stand there. “No Standing”! There is an ARROW that points in both directions! (Points to something offstage near the bus-stop) Oh, I see a man is standing right next to the forbidding sign! Maybe we can stand behind him. This way if something happens, he will be punished first.
And this humor reappears in Dog and Wolf—this time, in a sterile American law office:
I hope to bring my mother to this country.
I wouldn’t count on it.
She imagines it’s like heaven, with big refrigerators. Her eyes brighten at the sound of “America”…
(Reading application; surprised.) You were in this country before?
I do not remember much. I do remember the name of the Chelsea Hotel?
From France we came. A boyfriend.
So it was a sight seeing visit?
No sights were seen. Sex and Drugs Visit.
Say “a tourist visit”.
Catherine embraces hope in the strength of the connection she builds between her characters and the audience. “You might ask yourself how many teardrops or raindrops or drops of fresh morning dew would it take to fill the ocean, to fill the lake,” says her character Sarah, an American journalist in Cambodia, from Silence of God, “and I would tell you not as many as you think, and what you see at night in the water, the glistening, bending light, the reflections, are the magic of love, and also your own suffocating drowning. That’s the world of water. You can go under the surface and slowly motion to the one you love, and he will answer with his hands. You might ask yourself, ‘Are we fish, not human?’ and I will answer that we are human, but we don’t always do human things, and that is all I can tell you, for there was so much I did not let myself know, and so much I will never know.”
“Through the transformative space of theater, an audience can connect as a witness and find the humanity in the room,” Filloux says. Indeed, as an audience, we journey with her characters as they confront the ramifications of unimaginable suffering. And at the end, Catherine Filloux’s vision shows us that the spirit is strong and resilient and that, against all odds, what is truly essential for survival is nurturing, guarding, and holding fast to hope for a better tomorrow.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at [email protected]