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Rwanda visit shows art can change world

In Buffalo State College's estimable theater program, the first assignment is a doozy.

The three-word task, which also serves as the personal and professional mantra of Buff State professor Drew Kahn, is nothing if not straightforward: "Change the world."

To anyone unfamiliar with Kahn's decidedly unorthodox teaching methods -- or his uncommon commitment to making that mantra count -- this might seem like a nice bit of hyperbole aimed at boosting enrollment. But this weekend, as Kahn and eight current and former students readjust to life in the United States after two powerful weeks in Rwanda, those words ring truer than ever. In 2009, following a successful production three years earlier of "The Diary of Anne Frank," Kahn launched the Anne Frank Project, an interdisciplinary conference based at Buffalo State. The project was launched to marshall the power of art and theater to cause actual social change and driven by "an intense passion for world improvement and an insatiable hunger for social justice."

In its two subsequent versions, the growing conference has strengthened the bonds between Rwanda and Kahn's theater program. Last year, the conference featured addresses from Carl Wilkens, a humanitarian and former relief worker who helped to save dozens of Rwandans during the 1994 genocide, and Hope Azeda, founder and director of the Rwandan theater company Mashirika.

Those connections led to this month's trip, during which the students (most from Buffalo State but some from other U.S. colleges) visited Rwanda's haunting genocide memorials, spoke with Rwandans who bore the physical and mental scars from that bloody conflict and conceived and performed a new piece of theater with members of Mashirika.

Reached by phone just after landing in Washington on Friday morning, a jet-lagged Kahn, who had been to Rwanda with Wilkens once before, reflected on his students' first glimpse of the beautiful, war-ravaged country.

"Watching them see Rwanda for the first time was magical, and I feel more confident than ever that bringing students to a place like Rwanda to examine all of its horror and all of its beauty is really valuable," Kahn said. "When we talk in Buffalo about being world-changers and warriors, we give them opportunities, but it still can be abstract. It's not abstract for them anymore."

In the students' extensive blogs about their experience in Rwanda (online at www.annefrankproject.com), one experience stood apart from the others. Last week, the group visited Rwanda's Murambi genocide memorial, where bodies of many of the 50,000 Rwandan men, women and children murdered there in 1994 are still laid out for all to see.

Like many of the students, Buffalo State alumna Eve Everette was visibly upset at the shocking nature of the memorial, but eventually came to understand its jarring intent.

"This interaction made me understand even more so why it is important to Rwandans that the world come to visit and see the truth," she wrote. "People need to recognize and learn properly the genocide that happened in Rwanda. When people learn the truth, they can prevent this from happening again."

It may seem obvious in retrospect, but the simplicity of the concept escapes far too many. For Kahn, his students and a growing number of believers in the Anne Frank Project, the visceral, human power of theater provides a real way to solve this problem.

Kara Ashby, speaking by phone from Washington, agreed. "Having been able to create that community [with Mashirika] and to share the same passion and understanding of changing the world through our art, is irreplaceable," she said. "And I feel like we have no other option as artists now."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com