In 1994, over the course of 100 days, 800,000 people — ethnic Tutsis — were slaughtered by Hutus in their shared homeland, Rwanda. It was a season of slaughter, but many around the world neither noticed nor acted. News coverage was spotty and Westerners had trouble making heads or tails of the tribal rivalries, distinctions and affiliations of the victims and perpetrators. Later, those 100 days of massacre and mayhem across the Rwandan countryside and cities, were termed a genocide — a targeted and systematic killing of a large group of people based on race, religion, ethnicity or other distinguishing factor. The Rwandan genocide was said to be five times more efficient at eliminating a single people than the Holocaust.
Actor and playwright Jay O. Sanders took notice, developing a play that was read last year at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, marking the 20-year commemoration of Rwanda’s summer of killing.
Unexplored Interior makes its world premiere this month as the season opener of Mosaic Theater, the recently formed company helmed by Ari Roth, former artistic director of Theater J, whose public firing and the politics of his artistic choices rankled some in the Jewish community. Roth turned condemnation into reinvention with his new company, Mosaic, and its mission to broaden and deepen the play-going experience with socially conscience and politically provocative theater.
The company’s first work does that. Playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street in Northeast, Unexplored Interior is a gut-wrencher of a season opener, tracing the bloody killings, often neighbor killing neighbor, during that unforgiving Rwandan spring and summer in 1994.
The play is subtitled This Is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth, and the events are recounted through the eyes of a young Tutsi, aspiring filmmaker Raymond, played with grace and dignity by Desmond Bing. We meet him and his grandfather, Felicien, grizzled Bill Grimmette, the town griot, or history keeper, who urges his grandson to learn, hold and tell the stories of his beautiful but scarred country.
With the help of director Derek Goldman, a series of parallel stories, flashing back and forward from 1994 to 2004, reveal the complexity of the politics in what amounted to a brutal ethnic cleansing. Sometimes dramatizing history gets complicated; those unfamiliar with the details of that summer of 1994 may get lost in the overlapping decades, story threads and narrative elements. It doesn’t make the account less compelling, but a timeline in the program can help put events into sequence.
Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi’s work grounds the play into the earthy Rwandan landscape, mountains created with stacks of barren plywood that are given vivid color by Jared Mezzocchi’s video projections. Mezzocchi, too, overlays some of the storytelling with filmic touches. There’s Raymond’s friend and soccer buddy Alphonse (Freddie Bennett), a Hutu, who breaks your heart late in the play. American filmmakers Alan and Kate mentor their young Rwandan friend and Kate (open-hearted Erika Rose) accompanies him on a return to his village. Canadian peacekeeper Gen. Romeo Dallaire (Jeff Allin, double-cast as the filmmaker) on being ordered to leave behind hundreds of Rwandans and expatriates seeking refuge, refuses. Hutu government official Thomas Sibomana (Michael Anthony Williams) begs for his life at the hands of violent Tutsis, while keeping his girlfriend Cat-reen (Shannon Dorsey) hidden.
A deus ex machina of sorts, the ghost of Mark Twain, played with Midwestern matter-of-factness by John Lescault, adds an additional American point of view, with his conscientious aphorisms. Baakari Wilder offers a chilling portrayal of a Hutu guard instructing young men on using a machete for merciless killing techniques.
These searing accounts of indescribable violence and hatred send a chill down the spines of anyone who has studied 20th century European history and uttered the cri de coeur, “Never forget.” While no Jewish characters inhabit Sanders’ script, the specter of ethnic cleansing, genocide and indiscriminate and brutal killing resonate deeply with Jewish audiences raised on Holocaust remembrance as a sacred tenet.
Much of the material in Unexplored Interior echoes reporting by former Jewish Forward writer Philip Gourevitch, who traveled to Rwanda nine times between 1995 and 1997 to interview Hutus, Tutsis, victims, perpetrators, observers and others who lived to tell of those 100 days of killing and its aftermath. That work resulted in his first book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, and Sanders’ play revisits some of those stories.
Mosaic Theater’s first play makes an artful and unequivocal statement that it is a theater with a purpose, intent to challenge and change minds, reclaim the past to learn from it, and push audiences to action and away from complacency. Roth terms this genre of work “corrective remembrance” — and Jewish audiences have long memories. Revisiting the past — and learning from it — remain a central precept of Judaism, of course. But it is the Hutu Rwandan bureaucrat’s words that sum up the inconceivable: “Who knew we would become Nazis.”
Unexplored Interior, Mosaic Theater, through Nov. 29, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theater, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Tickets: $20-$60. Visit www.mosaictheater.org or call (202) 399-7993.