Written and directed by Carly Wijs
Created with Thomas Vantuycom
Set design by Stef Steel
Lighting design by Thomas Clause
Sound design by Peter Brughmans
Dramaturgy by Mike Versyp
Featuring: Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven
At the CAA Theatre in Toronto
Us/Them is a poignant and thought provoking piece of theatre for young people originally produced by the BRONKS company from Brussels, Belgium, who commissioned the script from Carly Wijs and produced the play in 2014. It has a limited run as the opening of the Off-Mirvish season at the CAA Theatre.
In September 2004 a group of armed Chechen nationalists stormed a school in Beslan, Russia, taking 1200 people hostage, mainly children and their parents or grandparents. The ensuing siege lasted three days ending in a chaotic rescue attempt by Russian security forces which left 330 hostages dead. Us/Them is told from the point of view of two children (played by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven) who render a first person account of the events to us, the audience, so that we can understand exactly what happened.
This chronological narration of circumstances and events that begins with a physical description of the school itself, is playfully contended as the two correct one another with regard to numbers of hostages, time frames and outcomes that would be cute and playful (like two rival siblings) if the subject matter was not so horrific. Herein lies the genius in the writing of this taut dialog that holds you spellbound for the next 60 minutes.
The actors who play the two children (somewhere between 8 and 12 years old), first introduce themselves and give us the lay of the land with regard to the school itself, entrances and exits, the gymnasium where everyone was held hostage, the washrooms, etc., by using chalk marks on the floor and the upstage wall which is a green chalkboard. Underneath this fast paced dialog a Russian folk-song begins quietly in the background and gradually gains momentum in both volume and tempo. The song is “Polyusko-polye” which translates as Meadowlands and was a staple of the Soviet Red Army Chorus repertoire during the Second World War. It is a song that calls out the heroism of Soviet troops who battled the Germans on the Eastern Front.
With this well known (for European audiences) music in the background, the young boy demonstrates how the terrorists quickly constructed a series of explosive booby-traps and bombs throughout the area (ingenious use of twine here by designer Stef Steel) that held the hostages while the terrorists made them stand for long periods with their hands in the air. “All of a sudden” we are told by the girl, “a heroic soldier enters the area and shoots two of the terrorists, then more “heroes” come and family members and a rescue is surely about to happen. “Except, this did not happen.” It was only the fantasy outcome constructed in the mind of a child. Music out.
What did actually happen will not be revealed here in this review except to say that the abrupt, heartbreaking, catch your breath ending is quite moving while the events in question are still disputed and contended to this day with regard to outcomes and lives lost.
Since this play premiered six years ago, a wave of mass shootings in schools, churches, mosques and synagogues across North America have added new urgency and resonance to the issues that the play dramatizes. Carly Wijs writes in her program notes that the terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013 and her attempts to answer her own eight-year-old son’s questions was the impetus that motivated her to take on this project.
Child psychologists tell us that horrific events such as these are only the first part of a trauma that can be long lasting. As the adults in the room, we need to reach out to our young people with less cynicism and more empathetic understanding of the complicated and sometimes brutal world in which we live. Us/Them helps us do that.