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Human Rights Plays Rooted in Dark French Books

Award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux credits her grandmother and her high school with kick-starting her interest in human rights and feminism. And the duality has led her to write more than 20 internationally produced plays and libretti.

Filloux recalls that when she was very young her paternal grandmother, living in France, would read aloud to her during visits. “Although I grew up in San Diego, French was my first language, and my grandmother used to read these dark French books to me,” Filloux begins. “I remember one, Francois Le Bossu, Francis the Hunchback, by Comtesse De Segur. It was very old, published in 1930, and was about a disabled boy. It asked the reader to empathize. There was a lot of dialogue in the book, with characters speaking in turn, as if in a play.”

Later, as a high school student in the late 1970s, Filloux began studying the Holocaust. “For me, the Holocaust stands as a catastrophic watershed moment that we’ll never put behind us,” she continues. “My paternal grandparents, who were not Jewish, lived in Occupied France and participated in the Resistance. They took in a Jewish boy who lived with them for years; my uncle, my father’s brother, was also active. When we studied this history in school we learned the phrase ‘never again,’ but what do these words mean when genocides continue to happen in other parts of the world? That’s the big question, and it refuses to go away.”

In fact, it forms the crux of Filloux’s 2005 play Lemkin’s House, pictured here. The drama is about Raphael Lemkin, [1900–1959] the Polish-Jewish attorney credited with coining the term genocide and with drafting the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, first presented to the United Nations in 1948. “I learned about Lemkin from Samantha Powers’ 2002 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Lemkin became like a soul mate for me,” Filloux explains. “Early on, before Hitler became powerful, Lemkin went to his family and told them, ‘We have to leave. Something terrible is going to happen here.’ They refused, thinking they’d be fine in their village.” The upshot was that Lemkin lost 49 family members — everyone except one brother.

Despite these compelling facts, Filloux was not interested in writing Lemkin’s biography. Instead, she says that she began by imagining Lemkin’s death, and opens the play with him in limbo. “It’s a surreal look at his situation,” she says. “He has survivor’s guilt and is haunted by both his mother and the genocides in Bosnia and other places. Among other things, the play is about forgiving himself for leaving his family behind.”

Filloux’s other plays tackle cultural dislocation, immigration, honor killing, mourning, rape, and political activism. “Eyes of the Heart” addresses the plight of 150 Cambodian women, imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, who became psychosomatically blind in response to the horrors they’d witnessed; “Dog and Wolf” focuses on the mass killings in Bosnia. “Memory can be revolutionary,” Filloux says. “By remembering you can plant seeds for change. Acknowledging vast suffering — remembering, retelling and re-acknowledging — asks an audience to empathize, to somehow get involved.”

That said, Filloux is adamant that her plays are not overtly political. “They’re character-driven stories,” she says, and while humor sometimes peeks out, she emphasizes that she writes about topics that demand attention.

Why plays instead of journalism or narrative accounts? “I’m drawn to the collaborative aspect, to the physical embodiment of characters onstage so that the writing lives in a community, through the audience.”

Catherine Filloux (catherinefilloux.com) will be leading an international playwright retreat in Italy August 1–August 10, 2014, for the La MaMa Umbria International. “Selma ‘65” will receive its world premiere from September 25th to October 12th, 2014, at La MaMa in New York City.