Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Wow, what a play! I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes. Playwright J.T. Rogers has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror in Rwanda in the days just prior to the 1994 genocide.
He uses an American family to do this. They are a college professor, Jack Exley (Sam Robards), and his family, Linda White-Keeler (Linda Powell), his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer, and Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David), Jack’s teenage son with whom he has a distant relationship. Jack is writing a book about ordinary people who make a difference in the world and wants to interview his college roommate, an African man running a clinic that treats children with AIDS. He also naively expects this time in Africa to be an enriching experience for Geoffrey the way his college semester abroad in Sweden had been for him. “I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question,” he says, mentioning his students and their sense of entitlement.
“This isn’t Sweden,” Charles Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a U.S. embassy official tells him.
But Jack is optimistic, telling a Hutu politician that he believes the coming elections will bring democracy to the country.
“This is Africa, not Delaware with a lot of black people,” the man replies.
Linda also is naive, thinking she has arrived in “paradise,” but not wanting to be “another tourist waxing eloquent about mother Africa.” Even in the face of warnings she remains calm. “I’m from Detroit,” she says. “You think this is a big deal?”
They learn before long that Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 is no Sweden, Delaware or Detroit, and certainly not paradise.
Tension mounts as the family learns that few people involved in the growing conflict can be trusted and that the American government knows of the explosive hatred enveloping the country but is unwilling to get involved. “You’re working on a book, I’m working on a pension,” Woolsey tells Jack while practicing his golf swing.
But when Jack still holds out the hope that America or some country will intervene, he is asked: “When has there been a country with a foreign policy based on the right thing to do?”
The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.
I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama this compelling. I won’t be at all surprised if it wins a Pulitzer next spring. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.
What’s even more important, it has left me thinking and praying about what I should be doing in the face of similar atrocities now playing out in Darfur and the Congo. I don’t want to be one of those comfortable people who fail to see the suffering and violence. A program note suggests getting involved through organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so I went online and got the application for Human Rights Watch and sent my check. It doesn’t seem like much in the face of such massive misery, but as Julian of Norwich said, Without God, we can’t; without us, God won’t -- meaning praying isn’t enough. We have to take action too. Luckily there’s still some theatre that can change the way we think, and act.