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Theatre in Review: Dogs of Rwanda (Urban Stages)

Abou Lion Diarra, Dan Hodge. Photo: Ben Hider

When men and women turn into savages, committing unthinkable acts, what happens next? How do the survivors go forward with their lives? What does forgiveness mean in this context? These questions lie at the heart of Sean Christopher Lewis' profoundly unsettling new play. Complex historical events, such as the horror show that was the Rwandan genocide, often elude playwrights; drama has its own demands, and they don't necessarily include laying bare an intricate matrix of sociopolitical factors. Furthermore, how does one engage an audience with such forbidding material? It is only natural to want to avert one's eyes from such events, which only seems to confirm Thomas Hobbes' worst conclusions about human nature. How are we to accept the idea of people turning against their fellow citizens, committing mass slaughter without a second's thought? Is the veneer of our civilization really that tissue-thin?

Rather than try to explain the inexplicable, Lewis opts for an intently focused approach: Dogs of Rwanda, a solo show, is filled with terrors, but the question gnawing at David, his protagonist, is how to live with the memories of crimes that, by all rights, will leave deep, ineradicable scars. David is one of a group of Christian teenagers from Ohio who, in 1994, travel to Uganda for their spring break. Heading to a village in the countryside, they take part in good works, helping to build new homes. For David, God's work comes with a bonus: Working side by side with Mary, his longtime girlfriend, he says, is "basically the most romantic thing you can imagine. Two teenagers, in the most beautiful place they've ever seen, lush and green, right down the river from Rwanda, falling in love. This is going to be the greatest spring break of our lives.

"And then one morning, a dead body comes floating by," he continues. "At first, we think it's an accident. We've never seen a dead body before. But then they keep coming."

The genocide has begun, as members of the Hutu tribe set out to eradicate -- in the most brutal fashion imaginable -- anyone who belongs to the Tutsi nation. David, Mary, and the others are quickly returned home, but they are changed forever by what they have seen. Partly as an act of exorcism -- - life at home now seems oddly unreal -- David begins writing about his experiences, eventually publishing a book, Tales of the Red Hills, which leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. Among other things, it drives a wedge between him and Mary, and they drift apart. And, after its publication, David receives in the mail a copy with a cryptic note attached, saying, "There are untruths here."

The letter is from God's Blessing, the young Tutsi man who befriended David and Mary, and who now pulls David back to Rwanda to face the events that he left out of Tales of the Red Hills. At first, David is stunned by the pace of new building in Rwanda -- which, he quickly realizes, has entirely been paid for by outside governments. "NGO money has been very, very kind," he notes, acidly. "Our guilt has been very, very kind." Next comes a stopover at a church where one of the mass killings took place; a woman takes David around, pointing out such details as a dark stain on the wall ("It's blood. From the babies"), ending her catalogue of horrors with her hands open, awaiting payment. Then she starts her spiel all over again, with another visitor. "It's a tourism of atrocity," says David, already feeling shaky.

A darker reckoning is in store as he and God's Blessing travel to the spot where they and Mary nearly lost their lives, having run from an angry Hutu gang and come upon a village transformed into a tableau of bodies and blood, presided over by a squad of Canadian soldiers. At first glance, the young people fear that the soldiers are the killers, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are shooting at another target. It is in this scene that we learn the awful meaning behind the play's title.

This spot is also where a murder is committed, an act of self-defense executed in blind terror, that will haunt David, Mary, and, especially, God's Blessing across the years. We also learn the meaning of God's Blessing's note, how he despises David's book for the absolution it doesn't provide, because it doesn't begin to grapple with the truth of what they experienced. As David notes, he, God's Blessing, and Mary are, each in his or her own way, modern Sisyphuses, burdened with stones of memory that none of them knows how to lay down. God's Blessing also evokes Rwanda's "grass courts," where those who participated in the atrocities detail their crimes before an entire village, without threat of incarceration or execution; instead, they must afterward wear pink jumpsuits, so that everyone will know what they did. Provocatively, this forgive-but-don't-forget policy comes across as both humane and devastating. The cycle of violence is broken, yet the guilty cannot escape what they did.

Lewis' text is filled with fine details, from the Ohio kids, in the airport awaiting their trip, wearing T-shirts that say "God is my co-pilot;" the church interior where the clothes of Tutsi victims are hung on display; the mark permanently left on God's Blessing's head from his fight for survival; and David's anguished admission that his artful storytelling essentially falsified Mary's role, destroying their relationship. Under the direction of Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano, the actor Dan Hodge holds us firmly in his grip for ninety minutes; an open-faced man in his thirties with eyebrows that naturally turn themselves into commas, giving him a permanently surprised look, he is well-suited to the role of an innocent who has wandered into the heart of darkness. He maintains admirable control over David's story, only gradually revealing the soul-rendering emotions that are the legacy of that fateful trip. Sharing the stage with him is the gifted drummer Abou Lion Diarra, who provides a constant rhythmic undercurrent that adds to the power of the piece. (Once or twice, Diarra scrapes the upstage bamboo walls, creating a sinister noise that stands in for the sound of machetes cutting through grass.)

The production is striking and yet not too slick. Frank J. Oliva's blood-red set, dominated by an angled ceiling piece, also serves as a surface for Ryan Belock's understated images of bare trees, palms, blue skies, and water. John Salutz's lighting adds to the overall effect with striking patterns and beautifully layered colors.

There are gaps in the text that one would like to see filled. The time frame is a little confusing; it's not entirely clear how long David and Mary stay together, how long after the trip the book is published, and how long it takes to fall into the hands of God's Blessing. Also, there is surprisingly little discussion about David and Mary's religious feelings and how they are affected by what happens. Nevertheless, this piece maintains a viselike power -- it is, quite literally, a trip to hell and back, and it poses lingering questions about guilt and reconciliation. Urban Stages has done us all a favor by bringing this urgent piece, previously seen in Chicago and Philadelphia, to our attention. -- David Barbour

(14 March 2018)

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