Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Overwhelming

This interview with J. T. Rogers appears in the Nov. 16, 2007 issue of "National Catholic Reporter." My review of the play is posted on Oct. 23.

I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama as compelling as “The Overwhelming.” I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes of this story centered around an American family, newly arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 as the genocide is ready to explode. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.

Playwright J.T. Rogers, 39, has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror of that place and time. He did this without ever having been to east Africa or talking to any Rwandans. But he had followed the events there closely at the time, or as closely as he could.

“There was never any clear explanation in the newspapers for why this came about so suddenly,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “It was like, ‘these people do this. It will be over in awhile,’ which was troubling. Being a playwright, I know people don’t just do something like that all of a sudden. It’s not, ‘dominoes this morning or kill my neighbor?’”

The question stayed with him for a decade. He then spent a year researching the country and the massacres and thought, “What would I do if I were in a situation where all the choices lead to monstrous ends?”

Realizing it could be perceived “as un-PC as you can get” for a white man who had never even been there to write about such an unfathomable event, the murder of 800,000 people in 100 days, he uses an American family to do it. They are a college professor, Jack Exley, his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer and his 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 his son 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,” a U.S. embassy official tells him dryly.

Because the information and political situation were so dense and would be foreign to many people in the audience, Rogers sought a familiar structure, crafting the play “like an intellectual thriller.” The college roommate has disappeared and the Exley family soon finds out few people in Rwanda in those dangerous times can be trusted. A UN official warns Jack, “You’re seeking answers in a country you don’t know without a language to understand it.”

The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.

The play premiered last year at the National Theatre in London. Rogers and director Max Stafford-Clark visited Rwanda prior to that production. “I was terrified I’d get there and start shredding the play,” Rogers says. But except for minor tweaking, the play stayed the same, even after he interviewed many survivors there. “I myself was personally touched,” he said.

What did come into being after the trip was Tim Shortall’s set, which was fashioned from a collage of photos Rogers took. What stands out as one enters the Laura Pels Theatre and what is the final spotlighted image is a statue of the Madonna and Child. It was inspired by one Rogers saw splattered with blood in a Catholic church where dozens of people had been killed.

“It’s an arresting image and it speaks to the complexities and ambiguities,” he says. “Many, many people in the first week were murdered in churches. The churches had always been safe havens.”

But in a country where few people in authority could be trusted, even many priests participated in the genocide. “That people of God could be able to carry out such ungodly deeds are the contradictions that are interesting in any play,” he says.

The realization that people were killing people they knew struck him during his visit to that country, which is the size of Maryland.

“You have to be there to understand how claustrophobic the country is. Everyone knew someone on the list. It’s astonishing.” He said a journalist told him, “Nobody kills a stranger here.”

Audience reaction to “The Overwhelming” has been extremely positive, even at the conservative, subscriber-based Off-Broadway house where it is playing through Dec. 23. Rogers says the run may be extended and that regional theatres have expressed interest in productions of their own. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published it, with an interview with Rogers and excerpts of some of his Rwandan interviews.

When I asked him why so few playwrights take on political subjects, Rogers was passionate in his reply.

“There’s a profound hostility to political theatre in this country, especially in this city. The critical establishment is very hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual or political ideas. They get written off as unemotional or preachy. Those are code words. There isn’t any real political discourse in our country.”

For that reason, Rogers thought the play probably would never get produced, but felt he had to write it anyway.

“I’m a playwright, not an essayist. What’s most interesting to me are subjects that are morally complex and don’t have answers.”

Related web site
Roundabout Theatre Company

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