It was 2018, Worcester, MA and a convening hosted by New England Foundation for the Arts. Presenters and artists from across New England were gathered together to share and learn about future performing arts projects. One of the artists that presented that day, a short excerpt from his solo performance piece, was Toto Kisaku. An internationally recognized theater artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Toto now found himself living as an asylee in New Haven.
His performance and the story was riveting. Even though he was performing on a naked stage without sets, lighting — we hung on his every word. When he was done, the room remained silent for several heart beats. Like many, I immediately thought of how his story would resonate in our community, home to so many immigrants, refugees and asylees from countries throughout Africa and around the world. This, coupled with his humanity, his lightness (despite the weight of the piece), warmth and optimism – made the idea of engaging Toto with Portland communities wholly compelling.
“Requiem for An Electric Chair” is one of the remaining programs held over from the spring of 2020. Our initial vision was to present this performance at John Ford Theater and be able to welcome high school students for a matinee. Alas, this did not remain possible as we re-imagined the presentation for 2021-2022. However, new activities emerged, such as the January 2022 virtual artist round table hosted by author/playwright and Executive Director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center Reza Jalali and featuring Toto alongside Maine artists poet Nyamuon Nguany “Moon” Machar and playwright Kerem Durdag – speaking to the process of writing and performing personal work, rooted in activism and community engagement. You can still watch a recording of this conversation here.
Over the past four years, we’ve learned much from Toto, including better understanding his intentions for this work – it’s a call to action, to all of us, to witness and show up against the acts of oppression occurring around the world. That is the power of Toto’s art and the power of theater: to create and bring us into these worlds so that we too might gain some understanding of another’s perspective and lived experience.
We wish to express our gratitude to the New England Foundation for the Arts, sponsor Coffee By Design and Papy Bongibo, entrepreneur, friend and President of the Congolese Association of Maine for their steadfast support of this project. And a huge thank you to Toto for never giving up faith that we’d get here.
Aimée M. Petrin
Executive & Artistic Director