"Truth or Consequences in Rwanda"
The world has witnessed many horrendous events over the past thirty years, among the most appalling being the genocide carried out in Rwanda by the Hutu people against the Tutsi in 1994, when over 800,000 were slaughtered. The Rwandan horror, indelibly captured in the 2004 movie, HOTEL RWANDA, starring Don Cheadle, is the subject of Ken Urban’s play SENSE OF AN ENDING, now in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, after premiering at London’s Theatre 503 earlier this year. Unlike HOTEL RWANDA, which documents the experiences of an actual person, SENSE OF AN ENDING declares that it “is based on the facts of the genocide,” but “is a work of fiction.” In fact, however, the essence of the plot is loosely derived from the Belgian trial of the nuns of Sovu, held in 2001. Since the playwright has other fish to fry, his claim that the work is fiction only serves to diminish its dramatic power.
Mr. Urban’s play, while set against the backdrop of the genocide, some of whose atrocities it describes, is more concerned with moral issues of religious faith, truth and falsity, and forgiveness, than historical documentation, no matter how closely what is discussed approximates its inspiration. Set in the Rwandan city of Kigali over Easter weekend in 1999 it tells the story of two Hutu Benedictine nuns, Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms), a.k.a. Bernadette, older and authoritative, and the youthful, less worldly Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham), a.k.a. Consolata. Both are in prison awaiting transport to Belgium where they’ll be tried for “crimes against humanity”; allegedly, they participated in a massacre of Tutsis, who were burned to death while seeking refuge at the nuns’ church shortly after President Habyarimana, a Hutu, died in a plane crash. Although those responsible have never been determined, the leader’s death was considered by the Hutu an assassination by Tutsi opposed to a peace accord with the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF).
A New York Times journalist, Charles (Joshua David Robinson), who identifies himself as African American, is there to investigate the nuns’ complicity in the killings. The story is important to him not merely for its news value but because he, a former rising star, was the subject of a plagiarism scandal (if you blink you’ll miss this) and wishes to write an account that will restore his credibility and status. Leaning toward belief in the nuns’ innocence, who might simply be scapegoats of the RPF, he finds discovering the truth to be no simple matter; should he trust them or the RPF? The other principals are Paul (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a uniformed Tutsi corporal in the RPF, who serves as Paul’s cynical guide and minder, and Dusabi (Danyon Davis), the sole victim of the church massacre to survive, whose existence has only now come into view, making him a potentially explosive witness.
Mr. Urban provides enough political background to help us engage with the story, but he’s really more concerned with the responses of his characters to what happened in the church. Charles’s inquiries, which are seamlessly integrated into the episodic script as it keeps shifting from scene to scene over a period of five days, often have him exploring his own reactions via the small recording device he uses when interviewing his subjects. His solo scenes with the recorder resemble soliloquies, except that instead of speaking to himself he’s relating his thoughts to a late colleague who served as his journalism mentor. Surprisingly, his ultimate realization of what transpired comes to him in a vision during a muddy, surrealistic flashback scene toward the end.
SENSE OF AN ENDING is performed within David L. Arsenault’s evocative three-quarters round setting of four benches and a backdrop of two huge, rusting metal doors on each of which is emblazoned a faded cross. Hanging overhead are dozens of clothing items, suggesting the many lost lives. Travis McHale’s lighting does wonders in eliciting the play’s shifting moods. The action jumps multiple times to different locales, but the set remains unchanged, the doors representing those leading into the church. Inside, we’re told, the bodies of the murdered Tutsis have been allowed to remain just as they were when they were killed. I’ve no idea about whether anything like this existed in Rwanda five years after the horrors, but it’s hard to accept the presence of hundreds of decomposing bodies allowed to remain in situ for so long in central east Africa.
SENSE OF AN ENDING is not an exposé or questioning of previously unknown or disputed historical events; we don’t learn anything new about the particular issues that provoked the enmity between the Hutus and the Tutsis, although we see that moral ambiguities exist on both sides of the divide. The case of the nuns is to be decided in a foreign court, not in a New York Times article, so Charles’s investigation, which essentially suggests that he’s setting himself up as judge and jury, might be considered inappropriate, but the issue never arises; since the case itself is a manufactured one, the play, for all the magnetism inherent in its subject matter, fails to stick. The fact that the sisters aren't represented by a lawyer makes the legality of their situation even vaguer.Director Adam Fitzgerald squeezes everything possible out of the small space’s limitations, and his actors are all solid, if unexceptional. Mr. Urban deserves kudos for attempting a play on such a significant topic, even if the play gains more of its power from its subject matter than the way that subject matter is expressed.
59 East 59th Street,
Through September 6