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The Water Carriers: The Militia is Arriving

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Trapped in a shipping container: The cast of The Water Carriers. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • Trapped in a shipping container: The cast of The Water Carriers.

"We're going to do an improv tonight," the South African playwright told the young, mostly white, mostly privileged students. "The rules of the improv are that you need to listen to what I say, you need to stay in character and if it gets too intense, you may leave at any time."

"You have 15 minutes to collect everything you need to spend three nights in the forest." They grabbed everything they could, from blankets to flashlights. The playwright returned. "Now you have five minutes to pack it all up because the militia is arriving." The lights dimmed. An alarm went off down the hall. And off they went, carrying only what they could manage, climbing across a construction site to arrive at a shipping container.

"Give me all the money you have," the playwright yelled as they crawled in. The take: about $65. He left them a bottle of water, some bread. The door slammed. And then the banging started. Thirty minutes later, he returned: "There's a problem. I need more money." But they had already given him all they had. How far was the playwright going to push this thing?

Just about as long as we can delay a lede without making you feel totally uncomfortable. Michael Williams, this fall's Visiting International Theatre Artist at Butler University, was the guy behind this experiment in experiential learning. He's not a sadist, at least to the best of our knowledge. Rather, he wanted to familiarize the cast of his new play The Water Carriers with the conditions the play's refugees — who are being smuggled across an unnamed sea in a shipping container — might have faced. And rest assured that the improv was followed up by a "very profound feedback session."

Williams is an arts administrator for a Cape Town opera company with a "second life," as he puts it, as a writer of crime fiction, novels for young people and libretti for operas, to name three gigs. Anything "to keep the wolves from the door," he jokes. Two of his most recent novels featured African refugees, so when he was invited to teach at Butler by theater head Diane Timmerman, he thought, "I've done all this research, and it would be wonderful now to write a play for Butler and for the students there dealing with the plight of refugees — and at the same time, create a piece of epic theater."

The Water Carriers intertwines two worlds: this modern one, where a group of African refugees is trying to survive an inhumane voyage; and an "epic" world, where the same actors play out scenes from ancient Malian and South African poems.

"Each of the refugees plays a character in the epic, so there's a nice interplay," Williams explains. "The haunted man who's got this terrible secret that he's holding back plays an evil character in the play. The kid, who's an illegal migrant worker and the asshole of the container, plays the hero in the old story. And in the playing of the hero, he gets to understand that he's immature and that he needs to wise up to life."

The shipping container scenes are written in contemporary vernacular, while the epic scenes make use of heightened language, as well as elements of traditional African theater such as "use of bodies, use of extraneous props to make up a story; a broad sweep of mime, puppetry, singing, dancing," Williams says.

Williams began writing about refugees after volunteering for a Cape Town soup kitchen. "It was a very enlightening process, a very special process to actually see people who are highly educated, fluent in many different languages, out in the street because of their refugee status and seen as street people," he says. "Their education is, in fact, superior to many black South Africans' education, far superior, and yet they're seen as outcasts, refugees and homeless people."

He combined the stories he gathered during interviews with refugees with a news story he came across "where people were put in the back of a shipping container behind a secret compartment — and they got lost when they arrived. The compartment was misplaced and the people that knew they were in there didn't find them for 14 days. The children inside died from thirst and one of the old people died, and the rest were found close to death."

Which brings us back to the shipping container improv. If students may have been a bit rattled, it was for a good cause. "I said, 'How did you feel and can you imagine this for real,'" Williams explains. "The 15 minute walk is not 15 minutes but 15 hours. The banging on the side of the container is not banging but gunshots. That experience has been so valuable in the rehearsal process. I keep referring back to it — and they do too. All of those details made the experience incredibly real for them."

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