Manoa: A Conversation with Playwright Catherine Filloux

Watercolor drawings in this volume are by Camille Assaf, costume designer for the U.S. premiere of Lemkin’s House in 2006.

The following is excerpted from the new MĀNOA edition, Eyes of the Heart: The Selected Plays of Catherine Filloux (Vol. 29, No. 1).

For twenty-five years, Catherine Filloux has been writing plays about human rights and social justice. She has also been a spokesperson for the value of theater as a force for social change. She has given readings and workshops and overseen productions in Cambodia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Northern Ireland, Italy, Belgium, and Bosnia. Her more than twenty plays and librettos have been produced in New York, across the U.S., and in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and her essays have appeared in such leading theater magazines as American Theatre and Drama Review.

Most recently, she was honored in New York City with the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre. Her new play Kidnap Road was presented by Anna Deavere Smith as part of NYU’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue in 2016. For her long career of activism in the theater community, Filloux received the 2015 Planet Activist Award. Her play whatdoesfreemean?—about women and mass incarceration in the U.S.—will premiere in 2018, produced by Nora’s Playhouse. She is also the librettist for three produced operas—including Where Elephants Weep, which premiered in Cambodia—and has been commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to write the libretto for composer Olga Neuwirth’s new opera, Orlando, to premiere in 2019.

A former Fulbright senior specialist in Cambodia and Morocco, Filloux is an artist-in-residence at La MaMa Theatre, a member of the Vassar College faculty, and a cofounder of Theatre Without Borders.

The following conversation took place in July 2017.

MĀNOA: You’ve been writing plays for a long time. What in your background led you to concentrate on issues of human rights, social justice, and equality?

CATHERINE FILLOUX: French was my first language, and when I learned English I consumed it with joy. I grew up on the border between San Diego and Tijuana, and was very familiar with that border and with Mexico. My father grew up in France during the Nazi occupation when the country was split into zones. My mother’s French-Belgian-Corsican family lived in Algeria, North Africa, for three generations before her. I inherited the privilege of being a citizen of the world. And we were strangers in a strange land.

When I first went to Cambodia in 2001, it was almost a decade after I had begun writing about the genocide. What Cambodian women refugees had told me for years made it seem as if Pol Pot—his real name Saloth Sar—was in the room with us, though we were in Bronx, New York. Why did he do it? I wondered. Why were they now here, these women whom I grew to love, in this strange land, where they told me Spanish would be a better language to learn than English, since the Bronx was a Dominican neighborhood. And also Dominican were the Sisters who ran St. Rita’s Refugee Center in the Bronx, where we all met.

When I landed for the first time at the airport in Phnom Penh, I could feel the wandering ghosts, kmauit, as I got on the back of a moto and entered the sea of motos that formed the most extraordinary Zen flow of traffic I’d ever seen.

MĀNOA: You have had plays produced, held workshops, and spoken about theater and human rights all over the world. And Theatre Without Borders, which you cofounded, is devoted to supporting theater worldwide. How would you compare the ways that socially aware theater such as yours—dealing with very difficult social and legal issues—is received in some of the countries you’ve been to? What has been the reaction to these kinds of plays?

CF: I’ve experienced productions of my plays translated into languages including Arabic, Bosnian, French, Guatemalan Spanish, Khmer (Cambodian), and Kurdish, in a variety of international venues. I’m always struck by the flexibility that is required when a playwright crosses borders. In the U.S., a playwright’s words are not to be altered; however, I’ve found that compromise and having an open mind are key attributes. One lives in between languages, always hoping to find better connections and associations for translation and not always succeeding. However, this itself is part of that artistic process.

MĀNOA: Most of the plays in Eyes of the Heart deal with the unequal status of women, who are the main characters in all the works except Lemkin’s House—and there, women also figure prominently. Do you feel a responsibility to portray the global condition of women in your work, and do you think that too little attention has been given to women in theater, especially with regard to human rights?

CF: I wrote the play Mary and Myra in the year 2000, and in 2016 I saw a production in Salt Lake City, right before the presidential election. The timeliness of this story was apparent. History repeats itself. Plays may influence and offer the tools to help people make distinctions between truth and lies, and to nurture intellectual and emotional freedom. Myra Bradwell was written out of history by her adversary, Susan B. Anthony, and needed to be resurrected. And Mary’s reputation was maligned by biographers. Theater places stories in front of hearts and minds, as a sentient being, as an experience that is living and transforming. In my play, Mary Todd Lincoln says to Myra Bradwell, “I believe you mean well with your causes. But you fight so often with the opposite sex you’ve become it.” And Myra responds, “I have fought endlessly for justice, placing the law ahead of myself on every occasion, and they have ignored me, trampled on me, placed obstacle after obstacle in my path. I am furious! Give me the secret about your son.” When I saw Mary and Myra recently, I remembered how its first director commented that Myra’s lines sounded perhaps a bit too much like the playwright. I smiled to myself when I heard the play so many years later.

I read that Raphael Lemkin was home-schooled by his mother. This inspired me in writing the end of my play Lemkin’s House. Plays and theater can raise awareness regarding challenging subjects—creating a space for dialogue—and a commitment to the power of language and the power of healing. Theater can have a responsibility to foster civic discourse and to spark people to think critically. It can offer ethical queries and put marginalized communities onto center stage.

MĀNOA: War and violence are important issues in your plays. How are you able to put such large, difficult subjects on the stage, especially using so few actors? How does your passion for these subjects affect your daily life?

CF:  I see myself as a witness in my theater work. In terms of theatrical language, I like to design a kind of poetry, which lives and breathes through action and characters onstage. The poet Wallace Stevens says, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” The language of theater onstage and the audience are involved in a collaboration—a co-creation. I believe theater as an art form exists every time differently—it lives and breathes in a community. When Albert Camus, the French and Algerian author, says theater is, “The night when the game is played,” he means each time with a different outcome, like a sports match. And for me, theater pieces are prisms, which cast different lights for each audience member: everyone imagines and interprets the plays differently, which allows a shared personal experience.

MĀNOA: Thank you for your work.


Eyes of the Heart is a collection of six plays by award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux: Eyes of the Heart; Kidnap Road; Lemkin’s House; Mary and Myra; Selma ’65; and Silence of God. The plays have both national and international settings. Subjects include key figures in the history of human and civil rights; genocide; crimes against women; international human rights law; U.S. Civil Rights Movement; and Women’s Suffrage.

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