Welcome back to Manbites Dog Theater, currently presenting another recent play on another difficult topic — or as they say in the play, Welcome to Rwanda, Jack. The Overwhelming has its funny moments, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be an easy entertainment. And don’t let the doctor tell you that you might feel just a slight discomfort. Whether you are too young to remember the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s, or you’ve simply been able to forget them for 15 years, you are likely to remember them after seeing this play, which tries to answer the howling question of why neighbors slaughter each other. This is Art, insightful, outraged and baffled, and yes, it is going to hurt.
Oh, but it hurts so good under the direction of Jay O’Berski, whose 15-person cast forms a tight ensemble. O’Berski is an intense artist — actor, director, writer — known for his dizzying productions. But here he has reached a new level of control and restraint, which serves J.T. Rogers’ harrowing 2004 script very well. The Overwhelming is set in Kigali, Rwanda in early 1994, so we know before the play begins what must come; yet O’Berski is able to build suspense and increase dread through the two acts, as truth peeks out from the layered nets of subterfuge and lies spread by nearly every character.
Jack Exley, an almost-failed academic trying to rescue his second tenure bid with a new publication, goes to Kigali on a desperate unpaid leave. He teaches poli-sci, specializing in international relations, but plans to do research on ordinary people who bring about grassroots social change. He expects to work with his old friend Joseph Gasana, now a pediatric AIDS doctor, who had been in college with Jack in America, and with whom he has made all the arrangements by correspondence. Jack, convincingly played by Michael O’Foghludha, has brought along his second wife Linda (Hazel Edmond), a creative nonfiction writer, and his teenage son Geoffrey (Michael Bergen), from whom Jack had been estranged until his mother’s recent death. This unhappy family begins its arduous journey toward understanding Rwanda with the step of searching for Joseph (Thaddaeus Edwards). He’s missing. His clinic is gone. No one will admit to having known him or seen him.
As Jack digs and pokes and prods, making the rounds of hospitals, UN Peacekeepers, Red Cross, police, and hardened diplomats and mercenaries, Linda and Geoffrey are making their own explorations of Kigali, and being seduced by aspects of it — or rather, by two compelling characters. Bryon Jennings II, handsome in his suit and smooth as silk as Samuel Mizinga, reels in Linda and has much to do with the rising suspense level on stage; whereas Geraud Staton, as Gérard, “befriends” young Geoffrey in a chilling display of affability. Jack’s, Linda’s, and Geoffrey’s very different ideas about who’s good and who’s bad in Rwanda are exploded simultaneously in a devastating final scene that removes the rhetorical distance from the play’s earlier moral questions.
Early in the play, Jack and Charles Woolsey (Chris Burner, adding nuance to his power) joke about forgotten incidents and characters from the recent historical past. Brezhnev! I bet my son doesn’t even know who Brezhnev was, says Jack. Among the many powerful points made by this play is that an ahistorical life is dangerous, although forgetfulness is offered and encouraged at the end of the play, to be applied like a salve to the wounded American sensibility. There is a moral dimension to remembering — but first you must see and acknowledge. These points are similar to artist Alfredo Jaar’s, who in 1996, at City Gallery in Raleigh, hung some photographs, and presented an installation of black boxes ostensibly filled with more photographs of Rwandan genocide and its survivors, and labeled with descriptive texts. The Overwhelming, written 10 years after Jaar began his project, is more capable of engaging your heart and mind than Jaar’s rather-too-precious installation made in the heat of the event. Although the stage is a black box, it is not closed to the viewer, but open and filled with riveting scenes.
In fact, O’Berski’s staging could be said to unpack Jaar’s black boxes and set the images in motion. The stage space is triangular, and filled with nothing. There is no set, just a couple of chairs and stools; there are no props. Nothing but black walls, black floor, harsh lights on the black ceiling. Through this space the scenes flow, overlap, replace each other, and the actors use the space very well, almost like dancers. There is music (directed by Jeffrey Scott Detwiler, who also excels as the raunchy Jan Verbeek), and voiceover; they intensify the atmosphere without cluttering the space. There is no stuff between you and the acting, and the result is exhilarating. The play stews documentary history, politics and moral philosophy into a suspense thriller; this strong cast gives you all the reality you can handle. What to do about remembering is up to you.