Wednesday, March 14, 2018

177 (2017-2018): Review: DOGS OF RWANDA (seen March 12, 2018)

"A Tourism of Atrocity"

Designer Frank J. Oliva’s simple but vivid setting for Dogs of Rwanda at the intimate Urban Stages displays two mud-like walls suggesting the color of dried blood and meeting at an upstage apex, with a large rear opening showing a woven rush fence behind it. A bench lines the stage right wall, and a dented tin can sits at center. John Salutz’s lighting helps create an appropriate African feeling, while, overhead, a sizable screen serves for Ryan Belock’s atmospheric projections.
Dan Hodge. Photo: Ben Hider.
A stocky, West African musician (Abou Lion Diarra), with a tan fedora, dreadlocks, a sport shirt, and jeans, enters, beating a rapid tattoo on a small shoulder drum with a thin, hook-like stick before taking his seat near a larger hand drum at stage left. Then, walking briskly down the center aisle from the audience’s rear is a man, probably in his late 30s, who steps onto the stage.

Dan Hodge, Abou Lion Diarra. Photo: Ben Hider.
This is David (Dan Hodge), who, recording his words on a small, digital recorder, uses the ensuing hour and 15 minutes to tell an occasionally riveting tale of his experiences in Rwanda. That, of course, is the tiny, impoverished, central African country tragically best known for its 1994 genocidal civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. During the war, countless Tutsis were ruthlessly slaughtered by forces controlled by the Hutu majority government.
Dan Hodge, Abou Lion Darria. Photo: Ben Hider.
For the record: to Rwanda’s north is the larger Uganda, to its east is the even larger Tanzania, to its south is the equally small Burundi, and to its west is the much, much larger Democratic Republic of the  Congo.

A number of books and movies (most notably 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle) have told the story of this horrendous event. What new or little-known things will we discover in this one-man play by Sean Christopher Lewis, directed by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano, seen last year in Philadelphia (as part of its rolling world premiere), with the same actor but under different direction? Not much, really.
Dan Hodge, Abou Lion Darria. Photo: Ben Hider.
David says that he’ll be following a Rwandan custom in which those needing to make a confession, even of something like lying or cheating, gather their village folk together to inform them of what they’ve done. Seeking to make amends for something, David needs to tell us his own story as though we were his villagers, his “witnesses.” As he talks, his narrative’s varying emotional levels are dramatically accentuated by Diarra’s awesomely accomplished drumming and gently tuneful riffs on a small mouth organ; he even uses the rush fence to create effective sounds.
Abou Lion Darria, Dan Hodge. Photo: Ben Hider.
David starts by launching into a story about his dog Max and girlfriend Amy, a poet, who recommended the animal as a therapeutic tool to help him heal from the trauma of his Rwandan experiences, which he recounted in a book he displays, Letters from the Red Hill. This is the copy he received a year earlier with a note in it claiming “There are untruths here.”

Choosing to ignore the note, he flew with Amy to Hawaii to research an article about priests who do “forgiveness ceremonies.” After witnessing these rites, which made everyone but him feel the good vibrations of forgiveness, the note began to obsess him. Amy, unable to help him, walked out, so he traveled to Rwanda to find its writer, someone he once knew called God’s Blessing, so he could resolve the painful feelings it stirred in him.
Dan Hodge, Abou Lion Darria. Photo: Ben Hider.
At this point, David begins recounting his memories of his 1994 visit to Uganda as one of a group of Christian missionary teenagers from Ohio. Among them is a girl named Mary, for whom he’s now recording his story, and who participated in the events. As he now and then reads from his memoir, David recalls his culture shock on arriving, the manual labor he and his peers had to do, and the lushness of the scenery. Then come the bodies, floating down the river from neighboring Rwanda, and the beginning of David’s endless nightmare.

What follows reveals the several seriously dangerous circumstances he and Mary encountered after meeting the shabby, bicycle-riding, Tutsi boy, God’s Blessing, whose parents had been killed. Needing to flee, they followed him into Rwanda as he tried to help them all find safety. Since it’s unclear when we’ve moved from Uganda to Rwanda, or even why, the narrative could be greatly improved with a better depiction of the geographical aspects of the story, possibly by a projected map.
Dan Hodge, Abou Lion Darria. Photo: Ben Hider.
The tale moves back and forth between David’s memories of 1994, those of the following years back in the States when he tried to resolve his stressful memories by the painful task of writing about them, and what happened when he visited Rwanda 20 years later and learned from God’s Blessing what his “untruths” were. Descriptions of terrible violence are contrasted with the current presence of foreign investment and the placidity of places where the greatest cruelty occurred and where a “tourism of atrocity” has emerged.  
Abou Darria Lion, Dan Hodge. Photo: Ben Hider.
The big reveal about those untruths is not especially eye-opening but it helps to express the playwright’s ultimate purpose of exploring the nature of forgiveness and the human need to expunge guilt by some form of contrition. He implies that the approach taken in Rwanda, which I’ll not reveal, is a valuable one; it is also, as one can understand under the circumstances, a necessary one.

Dogs of Rwanda’s subject matter is intrinsically interesting but there’s little of historical or political importance in it that even moderately well-informed audiences don’t already know. Its greatest value lies in the opportunity it provides for an exciting solo performance by a talented actor.

Hodge mostly satisfies its needs, offering a strong, personable characterization of someone genuinely affected after having gone through such indelible trauma. His major drawback is that he starts off on too high a level, creating an aura of “performance” before he’s established himself as a fellow human being, here to subtly bring us into his confessional vortex before the blood and guts begin to flow.


Urban Stages
259 W. 30th St., NYC
Through March 31