I have, for a long time, held the opinion that all theatre, and indeed all storytelling, is the result of humanity’s attempts to reckon with death. The surviving Greek tragedies largely deal with cycles of revenge due to unjust death; the drama in Shakespeare’s history plays pertains almost entirely to succession crises; even a late 20th century farce like Neil Simon’s Rumors roots its hilarity in an attempted suicide.
Tania El Khoury’s piece, Gardens Speak, does not fit into the traditional definition of theatre – but it is indisputably a work of storytelling. While attending the piece, each member of the audience individually hears a true story, told as if from beyond the grave, of a single real person buried in a garden in Syria. The piece asks little of the participant (I would say spectator, but that word seems insufficient) but to dig into the earth at the base of a simulated tombstone and listen.
The earth is a nearly universal symbol of death. Every culture I am personally aware of buries their dead, so to physically dig through actual dirt feels close to a violation of the dead’s privacy. Although obviously there are no actual dead bodies in Gardens Speak, the simulacrum of a cemetery plot is enough to evoke a strong reaction. At the end of the piece, we were asked to replace the earth we had displaced. The person whose story I heard was a Shi’a Muslim, but I was reminded of a practice in Jewish funerals: each mourner, if they so choose, places one shovelful of dirt into the grave of the deceased.
There are nearly infinite ways people may respond to Gardens Speak, but to me the piece’s beauty lies in its simplicity. By addressing death, the root of all storytelling, frankly and without pretense, Gardens Speak approached universality in a way nothing else I have ever seen has.