SOKWE: LOOK HUMAN
*New Work - Seeking Commissioners!*
In 1994, as a young New York theatre artist, Andrea Assaf traveled to Tanzania to study wildlife conservation. As part of an independent study, she lived for a month in one of the most remote national parks in the world, the Mahale Mountains, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – home to nine wild primate species, including chimpanzees. Shortly after, she volunteered for the Jane Goodall Institute, which by some fluke had just been charged with the care of young chimpanzees that the Tanzanian government had confiscated from poachers in a sting operation to stop an illegal shipment of ‘exotic’ animals. Andrea cared for five orphaned chimpanzees for six months, working closely with researchers, conservationists, and local laborers, until land for a sanctuary could be secured. Sokwe: Look Human tells the story of this extraordinary experience.
The Kiswahili term for “chimpanzee” is Sokwe Mtu – which translates literally to English as “looks human.” Sokwe translates to Spanish as “parece,” although in English there is no single word for “looks like” or “appears to be” or "appears as.” Mtu is the Kiswahili word for man, person or human.
Sokwe: Look Human emerges at the intersection of science, art, and politics. The project includes dialogues and interviews with primatologists and conservationists, as well as human rights advocates – revealing the contradictions and collisions that often arise between wildlife conservation and human rights in a post-/neo-colonial context. It looks back 25+ years at the status of chimpanzees – the species most closely related to humans – as an endangered species, and what has changed. It asks us to consider what it means to be endangered, now that we are in the midst of the greatest mass extinction the earth has seen since the dinosaur age, due to human-induced climate change.
Sokwe: Look Human asks us to examine what it means to be human, to appear human, to make a humanistic choice… and what it means to face extinction.
Sokwe: Look Human is an immersive, environmentally staged, multimedia performance with live music, storytelling, interviews, interactivity and embodiment. Participants will enter the set, surrounded by an ever-evolving projection design that transports performers and audiences to the environments in which the stories take place: a mountain forest in a remote national park, a human-size cage on the shores of a lake, an outdoor market in a small red-clay town, a laboratory or research center. On the journey, we’ll encounter in-person performers, as well as life-sized projections of chimpanzees (from original footage), and interviewees such as primatologists and conservationists.
The storyteller will be played by two performers – two versions of the playwright, 20+ years apart in age, narrating the journey from two different points of view simultaneously: the young artist experiencing everything in the moment, awakening to the profound experience of personal relationship with other apes, and the urgent need to save them; and the older writer, looking back from the future, knowing what will come. Along the way, the storyteller encounters a Tanzanian woman who embodies a very different perspective: a human-centered one, having lived through the era of colonialism as well as the contemporary struggles of her community, who questions the values at the very core of conservation.
The text will be woven from source materials including letters home written in 1994, storytelling, interviews, poetry and song. It will be bilingual, predominantly English with some Kiswahili. The songs, soundscapes and music will be co-created by collaborators: experimental voice artist Jonathan Hart Makwaia, and Tanzanian American song stylist Mankwe Ndosi.
Director / Storyteller – Andrea Assaf
Choreographer / Performer – Wanjiru Kamuyu
Vocalists – Jonathan Hart Makwaia & Mankwe Ndosi
Projection Designer – Eva Auster
Get to know the participating artists! Samples of their work in other projects are included below.
The images below are original photos taken by Andrea Assaf (except the one that she's in, with Dr. Jane Goodall), at Mahale Mountains National Park, Kitwe Sanctuary, and Kigoma, Tanazania.