By Jean Noël Mugabo

The seven days that Toto Kisaku spent as a kidnapping and torture victim – and his subsequent rescue by his own assailant, who shot and killed his three friends – led to the creation of Requiem for an Electric Chair, a solo, multimedia theater piece, with a performance at Westbrook Performing Arts Center on January 27, 2022.

”When I first came to the United States, I had been a victim of kidnapping back in DR Congo. [During my kidnapping] I was tortured and sequestered for seven days. The person who saved me was supposed to execute me. He took us to where he used to murder people, and killed three people that were with me. When it was my turn, he stretched out his arm and got ready to pull the trigger – and I suddenly heard him say, ‘I cannot kill you, because I know you!’ ”

It turned out that the man who recognized him and spared his life had once seen Kisaku’s play Basali ya Bazoba in Kinshasa. The theater piece about children who were accused of sorcery, and killed as punishment, received a negative reception from the authorities in DR Congo, and eventually led to Kisaku’s flight from persecution in the country. Kisaku noted that while he created Basali ya Bazoba in order to save children under threat, in the end it was the play that saved his own life. 

Requiem  addresses execution. “For me, it is a requiem because at the time I was in that place [waiting to be executed], I heard sounds, music … the environment that made me remember my life back in Kinshasa, with preaching pastors, singing choirs – and all these memories gave me the idea of naming my play Requiem for an Electric Chair.”

Recalling his childhood, Kisaku said, “I grew up in the city of Kinshasa. I was raised by a single mother. My childhood was not really easy. It was difficult. I used to smoke and take drugs. My mother tried to stop me from taking the wrong path [in life] by inviting me [to sit] around the table, [so she could] tell my story. My own story was like a medication to me.”

His mother asked him to make an effort, and become a better man. She told him about all the hard work she had done in order to pay his school fees. That conversation with his mother changed his life.

“After that, I stood up from that chair and decided to go back to university at the National Institute of Art, the school of drama… . Attending the institute, together with my mother’s story, was the beginning of my career as an artist,” he said. He began working as a professional artist in 2002. Vingt ans et alors was his debut play; Rencontre plus Reel, a political play, followed. Then came Basali ya bazoba and Requiem for an Electric Chair, with another in the pipeline.

Theater is the opposite of evil

Kisaku said theater can help people understand their lives, including the political world around them. “The theater gives a platform for the people to assess the actual stand of politicians – whether it is evil or good – and get to know whether what they receive from politics is consumable or not, harmful or not.” In his experience, politicians come with their own interests and a hidden agenda, instead of “with plates full of bread for the people.” He hopes his art contributes to positive change, and notes that he asks questions through his theater, and leaves the drawing of conclusions to the audience. “When people change, the environment will be better, and the better the environment, the better the world.” 

Requiem for an Electric Chair takes the audience into the execution room where Kisaku lived for seven days – preparing his mind to face the worst while he was given unimaginably horrible food and drink, and tortured both by day and by night.

“It is an emotion-filled piece, intense. The sounds, video, lights, and everything makes it come alive to the audience,” Kisaku said.

“It is an emotion-filled piece, intense. The sounds, video, lights, and everything makes it come alive to the audience. The energy of the exchange with the audience at the end of the presentation is also something to look forward to,” he said. 

Portland Ovations is the nonprofit performing arts organization hosting the performance. Executive and Artistic Director Aimée M. Petrin is excited for the performance. “Having first met Toto back in 2019, we’ve been eager ever since to bring him to Portland to share his incredible play. Kisaku’s work is artful, potent, and transformative. It is a pleasure to finally welcome him to Portland,” she said.

By connecting artists and audiences through various art experiences, both onstage and off, Portland Ovations’ goal is to make theater, music, and dance an integral part of the Portland community. They’ve been offering their unique mix of live performances and workshops  since 1931. Performance venues span historic and modern theaters, galleries, and classrooms.