- The Overwhelming
- By J.T. Rogers
- Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Directed by Ed Herendeen
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“When, in the history of the world,” the cynical American bureaucrat Woolsey (Michael Goodwin) asks Professor Exley, (Lee Sellars), new to Rwanda, “has there been a country with a foreign policy based on ‘It’s the right thing to do?'”
The question is not an abstract one. It is 1994, and we are on the fifth year of our post-Soviet holiday from history. Jack Exley is looking for his friend, Joseph Gasana (Avery Glymph), a physician specializing in pediatric AIDS treatment. Dr. Gasana is a Tutsi. He has been missing for a week.
There is an answer to Woolsey’s question, of course: the United States of America, in one of our occasional spasms of Wilsonian idealism. Our high (and generally mixed) motives frequently lead us to catastrophe, in Viet Nam and Iraq, but there are consequences to inaction as well. Viet Nam now has a government which makes China look like a hotbed of democracy; and the man we removed from power in Iraq gassed his own people and threw his political opponents into acid vats. In The Overwhelming, we are on the eve of the massacre of eight hundred thousand Tutsis – an event in which the United States steadfastly refused to intervene.
When we do intervene, we usually do so badly, in part because we do it so ignorantly. We expect to see cartoon good guys and bad guys, as we would in bad theater. The Overwhelming, like the real world, is very good theater indeed, and the claims in it are complicated. Even the reviled Hutus turn out to be real people, with real grievances. “[W]hat has just happened in Burundi will happen here: Hutus, everywhere, murdered in the streets, the Earth soaked in their blood,” predicts Samuel Mizinga (David Emerson Toney), referring to the 1972 Burundi massacre of Hutus. “So again we are nothing but slaves.”
Rogers everywhere confronts us with our ignorance, whether in language (other characters speak French, German, and Kinyarwanda, but Americans speak only English) or in characterization. Hutu zealots are hardly monsters. Mizinga is charming, attentive and solicitous, and manservant Gerard (Maduka Steady, doing excellent work in this role) is just a big, goofy kid who watches over Exley’s son, Geoffrey (Graham Powell). Even Robert Klingelheofer’s set suggests ambiguity and uncertainty: the walls loom with no visible means of support, and behind them is only blackness.
On the other hand, things are simple and understandable – from the American point of view. Exley, struggling to achieve tenure, has come to Rwanda with the hope of writing a paper on ordinary citizens who change the course of history. Dr. Gasana, he believes, is one of them and he will write about him. He brings his wife of three years, Linda White-Keeler (Tijuana T. Ricks), an African-American journalist, and Geoffrey, the son he had with his recently-deceased ex-wife. Exley is aware, of course, of the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but he believes it to be under control. After all, there’s a new peace treaty in place, and the President, a Hutu, is ready to sign. He does not know that within a fortnight the President will be dead. He does not know anything.
Rogers builds suspense expertly, aided by Herendeen’s exquisite pacing and an excellent cast. Sellars makes Exley’s developing frustration palpable, as he goes from Rwandan officials to the United Nation to the French and American embassies in an effort to find his missing friend. Although we watch the play with the benefit of hindsight – about Rwanda, if not about Gasana – we get the same vertiginous feeling Exley gets: this is a reverse-education play. We start out with assumed certainty and end up in the moral dark.
Eventually, a bitter Mitzinga predicts, “This will mean nothing to you. All of us, we will mean nothing…You will go home and forget.”
And, but for artists like Rogers and work like this superb play, he would be right.
- Running Time: 2:20 with one intermission
- Tickets & Schedule: Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Where: Shepherds University . Frank Center Stage . Shepherdstown, WV