Thursday, April 24, 2008

I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda

What a beautiful and touching play. I was completely involved in this story of Juliette, a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, and her attempts to find healing through writing. Susan Heyward isn’t just an actor playing a role, she is Juliette. I believed she was every step of the way.

The play is part of a multimedia arts event presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, St. Peter’s Church and Through the Eyes of Children: The Rwanda Project. A beautiful, life-affirming photo exhibit complements the show and can be seen, like the play, through May 4. The theatre and gallery are at St. Peter’s Church, 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

My only disappointment, and it was a deep one, was that fewer than 50 people were in attendance. Perhaps the subject scared them away, and that’s unfortunately because this is not a depressing play. Although the personal account Juliette eventually reveals to her writing teacher, played well by Joe Menino, is horrifying, the healing she finds through the telling and through their deepening relationship is affirmative -- resurrectional. I strongly recommend this play.

I also encourage you to stop in one day to see the photos, taken by orphaned survivors of the genocide. The pictures are of everyday life in post-genocide Rwanda, and they are a shining glimpse of resilience and hope. Photos of the young artists, aged eight to 18, are on display as well, and I could only marvel at their big, proud smiles, these young people who had lost their families and seen such staggering violence. My faith in God is badly shaken when I read about atrocious like those in Rwanda and Darfur, but looking at those smiling faces I can once again believe there is a God who cares. That remarkable capacity to live again and find joy could only come from God.

Juliette is the fictional demonstration of this, but she is based on a real person. British playwright Sonja Linden was inspired by a young refugee she worked with through the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. This woman, like Juliette, had been plagued by headaches and nightmares. What started as a testimony to the horrors her family suffered became her vehicle for healing. She told Linden, after two and a half years of writing her story and confronting her emotion and pain, that she felt “clean” and that the headaches and nightmares stopped. This, also, is Juliette’s experience.

Linden says when she hears criticism about the long title of her play she sees it as “symptomatic of the West’s indifference to a genocide taking place in a tiny country, off the map, in faraway darkest Africa. Similarly my long title is a deliberate challenge to our short attention span where Rwanda is concerned.”

In 2004 she wrote about another motivation for writing this play: “As the daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, I have felt all the more compelled to draw attention to this appalling late chapter in 20th century history, a chapter that has such strong parallels with the Final Solution. Tragically, as I write this, a new genocide threatens in Western Sudan, transgressing once more the idealism of the post-Holocaust slogan of ‘Never Again.’”

To learn more about the Rwanda Project, visit For tickets to the play, visit

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