One of the best pieces of advice that theater maker Mathieu Wijdeven (Tilburg, 1991) received while making his new performance came from his cousin, actress and stand-up comedian Nina de la Parra. “She said: don’t go on a trip to Suriname – you still remain a tourist there, and it has been done so many times by other makers who went in search of their roots. Look for the Suriname here, the Suriname that Surinamese brought to the Netherlands.”

It was indeed obvious for Wijdeven to take part in the preliminary investigation of The why answered to visit his great-great-grandfather’s country. That is in fact the Surinamese painter, writer and activist GGT Rustwijk, who wrote a one-man show at the beginning of the twentieth century about the poor conditions in which most Surinamese lived, addressed to Dutch notables who visited the colony at the time: The Why Answered or The Woe Unveiled For The Welfare Committee. “I came across his work by visiting my great-aunt. She had kept a great deal of his material. In the end, the welfare commission never even showed up. He was not interested in the problems of the population, but only in cutting costs. Nevertheless, Rustwijk performed the monologue in the Thalia Theater in Paramaribo. In the Netherlands it has only reached a newspaper in The Hague, otherwise it has gone unnoticed here.”

3D head

Together with De La Parra, who acted as directing coach in the process, Wijdeven conceived the idea of ​​making a performance about Rustwijk. In his previous work, including the performances that Wijdeven created together with Nick Bos in their collective Firma DRAAK, there was a strong emphasis on the visual aspect, as well as the research for The why answered started from visual work. “I found a portrait of Rustwijk, and I designed a life-sized head of it in a 3D program. With that I started walking through Rotterdam to provoke reactions and to start conversations about ancestors and about colonial history. With such a work of art you can easily tempt people into personal conversations. I wanted to test whether the subject would be of interest to a wider audience. I often had to think back to those street interviews in the process.”

Mathieu Wijdeven.
Photo Bart Grietens

Wijdeven also met writer and theater maker Raoul de Jong, who had just finished the performance In Suriname had written about his own family history – a story that later resulted in the novel Jaguarman. “Raoul was able to put my great-great-grandfather’s story into historical context. He also coached me on how to interview my family members, what questions to ask, and how to write down as much as possible right after the interview, while it’s still fresh. A lot of material came out of that and we wrote the final text together.”

Motives

While making the performance, Wijdeven was inspired by Rustwijk’s political-artistic motives. “I was confronted with myself a lot, I had been wondering for a while why I actually want to make art. The investigation of my great-great-grandfather changed me completely. I find it really important that these kinds of stories are told. Not only for people with a Surinamese background, but for everyone, because it is about someone who dared to be critical of the ruling power.

“You know somewhere that colonial history was written by those in power, but it is painful to notice how much I did not know yet, and how much that incomplete history determines our view of the present. Initially I did have a lot of texts by Rustwijk, but there were also a lot of holes in his life story. I have spoken to many relatives and have always found pieces of him.”


Also read this interview with Nina de la Parra: ‘I don’t have to eat pom to prove that I’m Surinamese’

Na first van The why answered Wijdeven wants to continue his research into recent Surinamese history. “I recently spoke to a former classmate from the Toneelacademie Maastricht, and he mentioned that I had already made a solo about Desi Bouterse in the first year of the training. I had completely forgotten that, apparently the theme has been occupying me for a long time, but I had put it aside in my life for a while. So that visit to Suriname will come, even though Nina advised me against it (laughs).”

The show The why answered van Production House Theater Rotterdam is on tour until 17/12. incl. www.theaterrotterdam.nl

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