The Moss Arts Center welcomes over 30 professional artists to Blacksburg each year to create and perform in its spaces, yet exhibition openings and mainstage performances are often only a slice of these visiting artists’ experiences.

Center staff work closely with artists and campus and community partners to customize a range of rich experiences beyond the stage and gallery that connect artists with people from across Southwest Virginia — on-campus and off — including Virginia Tech students, faculty, and staff; students from pre-kindergarten to high school; and community members.

In September, the center presented “The Book of Life,” a theatre work featuring Rwandan writer and activist Gakire Katese Odile “Kiki” and the Women Drummers of Rwanda, Ingoma Nshya. The performance was based on Katese’s years-long project of accumulating letters written by survivors and perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which resulted in the murder of 1 million people in 100 days. Katese shared stories of life, loss, and recovery, leading audience members on a remarkable journey of unlocking life after trauma and finding a humane way forward.

In addition to the ticketed public performance, people of all ages connected with the artists and the performance subject matter through a curated collection of activities — from drumming workshops and performance-related talks to school-day matinees for area students. 

“The Moss Arts Center is excited by the extraordinary artists we bring,” said Margaret Lawrence, Moss Arts Center director of programming. “Through them, we find nearly limitless potential to activate learning, invite deep reflection, and, in the case of ‘The Book of Life,’ cultivate understanding and empathy for other human beings.

"This remarkable play touched on important and troubling international history, yet at the same time it demonstrated the value and joy of family ties. Whether student drummers at Virginia Tech, children hearing African drums for the first time, or community members living far from the lands of their births, we found a way to bring so many people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests into the experience — and thereby into personal connections to the power of the arts.”

Engaging with Virginia Tech students

Artist and performer Kiki Katese talks with a student onstage in front of a large audience on students. Katese holds a microphone to her mouth. She is a Black woman wearing a multi-colored dress and multi-colored head dress and sits in a chair. The student with Katese onstage is also sitting in a chair. She is a black woman with glasses wearing a black headband, white sweater, and black pants.
Gakire Katese Odile “Kiki” discusses the historical context of "The Book of Life" with Virginia Tech students. Photo by Ashish Aggarwal for Virginia Tech.

Katese and members of Ingoma Nshya led a spririt-filled drumming workshop for Virginia Tech percussion students in the School of Performing Arts and participated in a discussion about the historical context of the drumming ensemble and “The Book of Life” as arts-based responses to the Rwandan genocide during an event presented in partnership with the living-learning program Ujima, Global Education Office, and Creativity and Innovation District.

Free matinee performance for area students

A theatre is filled with children standing up, many with their hands in the air as they watch a group of female Rwandan drummers perform onstage. The drummers have their hands in the air, also.
Students cheer during a free school-day performance by Ingoma Nshya in the Moss Arts Center's Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre. Photo by Ashish Aggarwal for Virginia Tech.

More than 700 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade attended the free school-day performance “Ingoma Nshya: The Women Drummers of Rwanda,” which showcased the ensemble’s skilled drumming technique and told the story of its establishment as the first collective of female drummers in Rwanda. The high-energy performance ended with members of Ingoma Nshya inviting students onstage to dance.

Students from the following schools were in attendance: Gilbert Linkous Elementary, Floyd County High School, Martinsville Middle School, Blue Mountain School, Blacksburg New School, Auburn Middle School, Christiansburg Elementary School, and New River Valley Montessori. A group of senior adults from Virginia Tech’s Engagement Center for Creative Aging also attended.

Pre- and post-performance discussions

Immediately following the performance, Katese engaged with the audience in a discussion about the production’s development and impact. She shared her thoughts about the legacy she’s leaving her children through her work to preserve the stories of people’s lives and discussed how women have evolved into leaders post-genocide.

“As a woman, I feel we give birth, so we know how to grow life…we grow people,” Katese said. “So, I feel like in the role of building a country, because after the genocide the population was made up of 74 percent of women, immediately after the genocide, so they have to take leader roles, they have to bring back life.”

Professional development for Virginia Tech staff

Virginia Tech staff participating in Culture and Context Through the Arts, a diversity education program jointly facilitated by the Moss Arts Center and Office for Inclusion and Diversity, attended the matinee performance and participated in a post-event group conversation about intercultural understanding.

During the post-performance discussion, participants shared reflections inspired by the performance, including a comparison of the way Rwandan women assumed positions of leadership when men were disproportionately killed in the genocide, to U.S. women taking on new societal roles during World War II and thoughts about when and how a country decides to intervene in geopolitical conflicts.

Culture and Context Through the Arts is a professional development course that incorporates attendance at a live, in-person performance and a moderated follow-up discussion to increase openness and sensitivity to cultures different from the participant’s own. The program intends to increase awareness of a participant’s own culture and worldview, while offering confidence and flexibility in approaching situations that are culturally unfamiliar.

Engaging with Virginia Tech faculty

Nearly 30 years since the genocide in Rwanda, questions remain about the performativity of perpetrators’ violations and what survivors are left with, culturally and personally. In a free pre-performance talk, “The Rwandan Genocide and Macabresque,” Edward Weisband, author and Edward S. Diggs Endowed Professorial Chair in the Department of Political Science, reflected on the question of how life must be lived in the presence of absence.

The center often features guest essays written by Virginia Tech faculty and staff in its performance programs to deepen the audience’s experience. The “The Book of Life" program included a piece written by Onwubiko Agozino, a Virginia Tech professor of sociology and scholar-activist whose work focuses on people of African descent and other marginalized groups. Agozino emphasizes race, class, and gender issues in his work that extends well beyond the classroom. In his powerful essay, Agozino explored the themes of the performance through the lens of his own experiences growing up during the genocidal Nigeria-Biafra War, which took 3.2 million lives between 1967-70. 

“The Book of Life” performance and associated engagement activities were supported in part by the Deborah L. Brown Center for the Arts Excellence Fund.


Share this story