Playwright Sonja Linden wrote the play, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, based on her own experiences with refugees from that region living in the United Kingdom. In Rwanda, in 1994, genocide took place, with civil war between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes resulting in death on a massive scale and hundreds of thousands fleeing the country for solace and safety elsewhere, including as far away as Great Britain. Linden has culled the stories brought to London by these refugees and made a real and very personal story of the strength of the spark of life surrounded by massive death. While the story brings our eyes and hearts to bear on one story of the struggle for survival, we also learn of the cruelty and savagery with which these warring tribes sought to eliminate each other.
The final play of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2009-10 PRC2 second stage series is a simple one: a young lady refugee by the name of Juliette comes to see a young writer who has volunteered to help refugees tell or write their particular stories. Juliette (Joy Jones) brings Simon (Garth Petal), her “instructor,” a massive tome of dates and details and atrocities that is staggering, but very dry and impersonal. Simon works slowly to bring Juliette’s own story into her work; and through the writing process, both Juliette and Simon find their own kinds of release and freedom.
… Young Lady from Rwanda is a simple play, with a unique and technically spectacular multimedia set that uses screens and backdrops to bring Juliette’s tale to life. Scenic designer McKay Coble joins forces with lighting designer Cecilia R. Durbin and projection designer Michael Matthews to make Juliette’s memories come alive on the screens upstage as she revisits them, one by one. It is a powerful and dynamic set that helps immeasurably to drive home the tale in Juliette’s own words.
Simon has his own tale to tell. A poet blocked for five years, a budding novelist who cannot complete his own work, he seeks solace in trying to help refugees tell their tales, while bringing to these tales the harrowing personal trials that caused these refugees to flee their own country. Juliette cannot escape these vivid and horrible dreams and memories; but her head is so full of beauty as she remembers her family and her country, that Simon becomes set on helping her get her book written. It is this process, worked on between the two, that gets Juliette’s cold, factual data quietly molded into a story that brings her own beautiful and frightening images to life.
And Simon helps Juliette, not only with her writing but with her need to go back to Africa to find her brother, whom she had thought dead. She learns he is in Uganda, to the north of Rwanda. Once she sees her brother and returns to London, the work is completed and searching for a publisher begins in short order.
But Simon realizes that working with Juliette has opened his own dammed creative juices, and that he is writing again. In helping Juliette to find her own voice, Simon’s own voice is now restored. Garth Petal performs Simon as a man at war with himself and his family, because his writing, with which he would like to support said family, is tanking. But coaxing the creative forces from Juliette’s locked memory causes his own writer’s block to dissolve, and his first new poems in five years describe Juliette and her terrible tragedy.
This play, however, is not Simon’s. It is Juliette’s. As her memories crowd around her, she puts them into words, beautiful descriptions that bring her family alive onstage. Her struggles to bring to the fore the personal, tragic side of her own fight for life, amidst so much death, are the very meat of this play. Jones is Juliette, with every breath and every description her own, every scene locked in her head. Her Juliette struggles not only to tell, but also to free herself from, the evil that befell her family. It is a worthy and a vivid struggle that she eventually wins, as her demons disappear from her head as they reach the written page. Jones is every second, every moment, bringing Juliette to the freedom she seeks, knowing finally that it is there for all to see, and that her struggle to accomplish this massive task has brought her to a home in her new country.
… Young Lady from Rwanda is a power-packed 90 minutes of passion, fear, and hope all struggling to rise above the horror of genocide to be able to live again. It is scary, it is filled with evil; but it is led by hope, and finally brings that hope to the fore. This “remarkable document” is indeed remarkable, with a perfect cast and a dynamic and mesmerizing staging that will truly wrap you up in its tale. This is a play not to be missed.
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda continues through Sunday, March 28th, in the Elizabth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For details, please see our theatre calendar.