Catherine Filloux: Creating on a World Stage


Lemkin (John Daggett) and JP an informant (Christopher Edwards). Photo by Carol Rosegg

Playwright Catherine Filloux does little to hide her heritage. "My dad was born in the center of France, and he became an adventurer," she says. Likewise, her mother seems to have had her share of influence. "My mom was a very literate person who loved literature." Being of French-Algerian descent, her mother wrote poetry in both her native tongue and English.

Somewhere between the poet and the adventurer lies Filloux, the prolific author of such works as Photographs From S-21, Eyes of the Heart, The Beauty Inside, and Lemkin's House, which opens Feb. 9 at the 78th Street Theater Lab. Filloux's adventures in theater have allowed her to take on major international issues, such as genocide, that playwrights and audiences don't always want to confront. At the same time, her career has taken her across oceans and brought her back again.

She also has the sort of credentials an aspiring playwright can

only dream about. Filloux is the Fulbright senior specialist in Cambodia and Morocco, the recipient of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays' Roger L. Stevens Award, and the Eric Kocher Playwrights Award from the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

Her published work reveals her penchant for exploring the world. Whereas her father sailed from France to New York Harbor in a catamaran, Filloux uses her plays to traverse the choppy waters between nations and cultures. Something of an adventurer herself, she has had her work produced in Cambodia, France, Algeria, Turkey, and Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"We grew up in San Diego in this kind of schism of Algeria, France, and San Diego," Filloux explains. "So it made for a background of not really knowing where one belongs and feeling like an outsider."

Filloux's "outsider" status encouraged her to look outside of the United States for inspiration. "In France and Europe, there is more fighting and conflict than was visibly apparent growing up in this country. I was drawn to conflict, which is an appropriate thing for playwriting."

International and cultural conflicts are always at the heart of her writing. Eyes of the Heart is an exploration of the psychosomatic blindness that afflicted Cambodian women after witnessing the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 70's. The Beauty Inside examines the Middle Eastern tradition of honor killings, where a woman who is raped and impregnated before marriage can be killed by her family.

"Both of these plays have repressive regimes and dire situations," Filloux says. "They're about tradition and family and utter evil. Honor killings are based on traditional tribal beliefs, but they happen all the time all over the world. They're happening right now."

Filloux's mission in theater, she admits, is to expose these evils. "For a while, these crimes were the 'best-kept secrets,' but they're not even secrets. They happen all the time, and nobody cares. And that's the problem on some level with doing this kind of theater. There's just a little wall that's been built up against these things, and to write theater about them is part of the challenge."

Her latest challenge is Lemkin's House, based on the life of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-American lawyer who invented the word "genocide" in 1944 and spent his life striving to have it recognized as an international crime. The play is set in Lemkin's afterlife, where his final rest is disturbed by those who have lived through modern atrocities.

"Lemkin's House comes from having explored a specific genocide, which is Cambodia, for many years and then realizing that genocide happens continuously all over the world and especially in the 90's with Rwanda and Bosnia," Filloux says. "These were enormous genocides."

Jean Randich, director of the 78th Street Theater Lab's production, points out that "a major task of Lemkin's House is to sensitize an audience to imagine crimes of both commission and omission that abet genocide."

"Catherine presents in short brutal scenes actual events from the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides," Randich says. "Interlaced with these are imagined scenes, sometimes politically provocative scenes, in which the reluctance of the West to get involved is addressed."

Randich adds, "One can't play the play without absorbing the historical background of three separate genocides-the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Bosnia."

Filloux's body of plays might suggest that she views such horrors objectively for the purpose of her writing, but that isn't the case. The strength of her work comes from the depth of her connection to those who suffer from these crimes. "I'll never get over the series of events that occurred with Rwanda," she says. "It was such a travesty on the part of the United Nations and its member states. In a hundred days, 800,000 people were hacked to death."

She finds great significance in juxtaposing the Rwandan massacres with Lemkin's quest to establish genocide as an international crime, which the United Nations did in 1949. As she notes, "The U.S. ratified Lemkin's treaty in 1988, and Rwanda occurred in 1994."

Still, Filloux understands audiences' reluctance to see plays that explore such topics as mass killings. "I think that people feel guilty," she says, "and they're not always able to enter those kinds of stories very easily." But in the case of Lemkin's House, she believes New York theatergoers are in for a different experience.

"What's interesting about Lemkin's House is that it's going to be, on some level, a comedy. There are a lot of ways of dealing with the subject matter," she says. "The comedy comes from the sort of absurd quality that occurs when we try so hard to do something against all odds. Those odds are human."

The 78th Street Theater Lab's production follows the play's world premiere in Sarajevo and a reading at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. "It's amazing because it was a reading, but I have to say it was one of the high points in my theater experience," Filloux says. "At that reading was the biographer that knows more about Lemkin than anyone. He was very supportive, and I was honored to meet him."

She finds the play's international production history most appropriate. "Lemkin believed in a world. The play is about forgiveness."

Filloux seems happy with her place in the world. Working in both Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway settings, she has found the perfect vehicle to pilot her course from country to country. As Randich says, "Catherine is a tremendously ambitious writer, which is both the joy and the challenge of the work."

But even stronger than Filloux's passions about injustice and atrocities is her devotion to her chosen art form, which she hopes will carry her through many more uncharted regions of the human experience.

"The love affair I've had with theater is really something that I feel is strong after 20 years," she says. Yet she also notes with some concern that "it's so sad on some level that the theater is challenged and fragile right now."

The future of theater, Filloux believes, can be found in the noncommercial scene. She has worked as a playwriting professor at Bennington College in Vermont, the New York University Dramatic Writing Program, and Ohio State University, where she seeks out fledgling writers who share her passion for exploring Lemkin's "world."

"I'm so attracted to young playwrights who make that commitment," she says. "To me that's exciting."

Lemkin's House, directed by Jean Randich, is playing at the 78th Street Theater Lab through Feb. 26. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at

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