by Lynn on April 2, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 is one of those historic events one doesn’t soon forget, it resonates with such intensity. This complex story has been dramatized in a play called THE OVERWHELMING, which opened last night at the Berkeley Theatre Downstairs. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin, is here to tell us if the play and the production did the story justice.

Hello Lynn. Briefly what is the background of the play?

Since 1916 Rwanda has been either under siege from outside forces, or had civil war between the resident Hutus and Tutsis. There is really no difference between these two peoples, except of social class.

The Tutsis were considered the elite class. And the Hutus were considered marginalized. Through Rwanda’s history either one or the other was in power with the one in power attacked the other.

The play THE OVERWHELMING covers The time in 1994 leading up to what is know as the Rwandan Genocide, when militant Hutus massacred between 800,000 and a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days.


What’s the story?

The play is written by J. T. Rogers. Jack Exley, an American professor of political science, has come to Rwanda to research a book on his friend Joseph Gasana, a doctor treating children with AIDS in that country.

Jack needs this opportunity because he has been denied tenure in the States and this book is his way to get it. The only problem is that Joseph has disappeared. No one at the hospital where he works has ever heard of him. Jack frantically goes from the police to other authorities trying to find him, with no luck. Jack has also brought his family with him, his wife Linda, a writer, and his 17 year old son Geoffrey. All of them are caught up in the swirl of the political upheaval in that country.

When Jack does learn about Joseph and his situation, Jack gets a sense of the impending danger he, his family and his friend are in. Joseph is a Tutsi and therefore a marked man.

I think J. T. Rogers handles the complexity of the animosity between Hutus and Tutsis well.

And how does he handle this?

He distills the situation without making it simplistic. In one scene a Rwandan woman is selling cabbages. She is joking with a pleasant Rwandan man. Linda wants to buy a cabbage from the woman. The man says no because the woman is a filthy Tutsi whore and her cabbages are poison.

The play is full of small, chilling scenes like that. And I love how Rogers creates a Kafkaesque situation in which Jack tries frantically to find Joseph, by going from one agency to another and either hits a brick wall, or is told to forget it.

In the play the Rwandans are wily, politically astute, charming and deadly. Next to them both Jack and Linda are naïve almost to the point of being stupid. Jack is a political scientist and yet seems surprised at the escalating political situation. Linda fancies herself a writer who is going to do articles on the place, yet believes everything she’s told by her charming, but complicit guide without question. Making them stupid seems like overkill but the play is so good it doesn’t damage it.

Does the production do the play justice?

For the most part. Studio 180 is producing THE OVERWHELMING. I love their edgy work. They did STUFF HAPPENS, THE ARAB-ISRAELI COOKBOOK.

Director Joel Greenberg has created a fast paced production, especially in Act II, that gets the audience right into the action. Scenes are swift, smooth and often very tight.

If I have a concern it’s that key scenes are not as clearly established as they should be. If one character is protecting another from brutality of a third character, and then gives up that person to be brutalized or worse, I have to clearly see why. That isn’t as clear or focused as it should be. We can have pandemonium, but it must be clearly shaped pandemonium.

The acting generally is very strong. As Jack, David Storch is appropriately concerned, confused and more and more distraught at a situation he can’t comprehend. As Joseph Gasana, Nigel Shawn Williams shows us a courtly man sinking deeper and deeper into the harrowing abyss. Fine work from both.

THE OVERWHELMING is an important play done by an important theatre company and it’s worth our attention.

THE OVERWHELMING plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until April 3. The theatre is wheelchair accessible.