by Matt Smith
“Forgiveness can’t just be passed between one another….It’s this big rock we carry….It’s all the pain and hurt someone has given us that we don’t know how to put down….[when] we forgive someone, we’re not absolving them. We’re finally giving them that rock. We’re finally letting go of that pain.”
Such is the goal that David (Dan Hodge), the main character of Dogs of Rwanda — the New York premiere of Sean Christopher Lewis’ harrowing account of the Rwandan genocide, presented by radical budding theatre company Urban Stages through March 31st — attempts to accomplish in relaying his story throughout the course of the evening. Spurred on by the mentions first of a Rwandan storytelling ritual, and then a Hawaiian “forgiveness ceremony,” the details of the plot are revealed entirely in retrospect, with David recalling his journey to the African country through a high-school Christian missionary program he completed with then-crush Mary.
Though now a 30-something successful writer, it’s clear he’s still plagued by the events of that trip, having unknowingly stumbled in amid the 100 days of the genocide. At the behest of the young Rwandan boy he encountered, and helped on his travels long ago, he defiantly tells his tale in an effort to clear his conscience, face his demons, and ultimately, come to terms with the truth of exactly what happened on that day, and how it’s shaped him since.
As you might imagine, it’s quite a disturbing account, both to tell and to hear, with dead bodies rolling in the streets, bashed-in baby heads getting thrown against the wall, and the titular mutts being blasted by soldiers as they sniff these rotting corpses are all among the uber-gory details outlined in David’s account.
But while what saves this 70-minute direct address from being, solely, a depressing regurgitation of a horrific bloodbath, is the inspired theatricality with which it’s being presented. We’re relieved from the more intense events of the story through original music by Abou Lion Diarra, who sits onstage throughout the production, providing audio accompaniment to David’s tale. Particularly intense moments in the action are punctuated by the bang of a drum or the scratch of fingernails sliding down a thatched wall. Frank Oliva’s authentic scenic design and Ryan Belock’s thoughtfully chosen projections also do much to transport us into the world of the play and send us into the mind from which David emotes.
Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano’s superb joint direction makes full use of the space — not an easy task with a story told in monologue — with storyteller and musician intertwining and interacting while fulfilling their duties throughout the performance, despite the fact that the latter doesn’t actually utter a spoken word (which, of course, makes his interaction wth the character all the more intriguing).
The playwright earns his due credit, too. That his story is told colloquially and “informally,” through the lens of a narrator guiding us through the story, helps us immensely in absorbing its message. Had we been left to our own devices to see the action unfold in real time sans narrator, the story, given the subject matter, would’ve been too harsh to endure. As one would when relaying a narrative, take natural breaks in the action to, say, set up a scene or comment on his delivery (“I say ‘steeped’ so many times, you’d think I was making tea,” he quips, after reading from a description from his book) which, again, allows the shell-shocked audience another moment of relief.
But of course, it’s David himself we’re most invested in… though, in watching it all play out, we don’t initially know why. Perhaps we’re mystified from the start, with his first unconventional, unexpected entrance. Perhaps we’re captivated midway through by how his body changes when certain details are communicated, and fear envelops him throughout. Perhaps it’s empathy for what he’s saying. He’s reliving the experience, and it’s destroying him with every word.
Or perhaps, in the era we’re living in today, in the midst of school shootings and political unjust, it’s knowing that although this is a fictional tale and the kid of his account may have been spared, there are kids, as David states, “in the woods, feet red from mud, worlds apart….still out there. They’re still out there.”
Whether you felt any sort of connection with David in his much-too-graphic retelling of his own experiences in the genocide, with those sharp blasts of imagery, undoubtedly, you do now. That’s, appropriately, where he ends his story… and, likely, why he told it in the first place.
Photos: Ben Hider
Dogs of Rwanda, by Sean Christopher Lewis, plays its New York premiere run at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th Street) through March 31st.
For tickets and/or more information, visit www.urbanstages.org.