When a new company takes the stage, founded on the principles of truth-telling and reconciliation, you can expect a production with strong material; when that new company is Mosaic Theater Company, you can also expect top-notch acting, innovative staging and risk-taking dramaturgy. Director Derek Goldman has assembled a fine team for Mosaic’s inaugural production, Jay O. Sanders’ complex, compelling Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth).
As the play’s longish subtitle suggests, Sanders’ subject is the infamous—and infamously preventable—genocidal rampage that saw 800,000 Tutsi slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors, all within a mere 100 days. In Sanders’ capable hands, however, the play is also a study of the artistic and personal responses to this tragedy. We see the Rwandan Genocide through the eyes of Raymond (played with haunting sensitivity by Desmond Bing), a Tutsi in New York City on a film scholarship, who is forced to watch the slaughter of his people on television. Raymond eventually returns to his native country, along with his film mentor, Alan (a solid, passionate turn by Jeff Allin). The experience galvanizes them both, and even after Alan suddenly passes away, Raymond continues his pursuit of the truth and the seemingly impossible prospect of reconciliation. Alan’s widow, Kate (the wonderful Erica Rose), carries on her husband’s work and bravely accompanies Raymond on his difficult quest.
Director Derek Goldman has assembled a fine team for Mosaic’s inaugural production…
Given Raymond’s passion for film, it is almost inevitable that he attempts to grasp the immensity of this tragedy through his art: he copes with his loss by laying out a series of scenarios involving, among others, the specter of Mark Twain (the amusing, avuncular John Lescault). Twain is remembered mostly for his comic novels, but his passion for justice led him to expose and denounce Belgium’s genocidal policies in Africa. (The ethnic tensions that led to the genocide can be traced, in large part, to Rwanda’s decades under Belgian rule, when divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were exploited and given the veneer of scientific certainty.)
Goldman’s sizable cast—the largest I’ve seen in years—honors this dark, complex subject and there are so many star turns it would almost be unfair to single out one and leave out another. But Michael Anthony Williams is riveting as Thomas Sibomana, a Hutu functionary who harbors a secret passion for Cat-reen (the passionate Shannon Dorsey) a Tutsi whom he protects at the risk of his own reputation. Bill Grimmette is compelling as Felicien, Raymond’s cheerful grandfather, whose story-weaving speaks to the beauty of the Rwanda that once was, and still could be.
Luciana Stecconi’s setting evokes the terraced fields of Rwanda’s rich farmland, enhanced immeasurably by Jared Mezzocchi’s projections. Mezzochi also provides us with the visual cue for Raymond’s film scenario: the vertical streaks of old-fashioned film stock. I mention this because for an average theatre-goer accustomed to straightforward narrative plots, the shifts back and forth between present-day action and film-scenarios can be a little jarring. A review of the history of the events leading up to the Rwandan genocide (thoughtfully provided in the program) is also essential in order to keep up with the topical references and occasional flash-backs that punctuate Sander’s script.
Mosaic’s Artistic Director, Ari Roth, is dedicated to truth-telling but also to reconciliation and forgiveness, and to that end he has decorated the Atlas Theatre lobby with portraits of real-live peacemakers from Africa, survivors of the all too many ethnic conflicts that have plagued the continent. When you go, be sure to take a few moments out to read some of the inspiring stories here, because their shining examples of forgiveness give us all hope that the future will be brighter for all who have suffered so much.
Advisory: Adult themes.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
Unexplored Interior runs through November 29th 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, click here or call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993.