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Rwandan Genocide Center Stage in ‘The Overwhelming’


An American play that deals with the most difficult of subjects -- the ethnic hatreds in Rwanda that led to the genocidal killings of an estimated 800,000 to one million people -- has drawn critical acclaim and theater audiences in New York City. Now playing off-Broadway in a Roundabout Theatre production, “The Overwhelming” – which premiered in London in 2006 – is by a New York-based dramatist who’d never been to Africa when he wrote it.

Playwright J.T. Rogers says he didn’t tell anyone he was writing a play set in Rwanda in the days just before the 1994 genocide. It began that same year, he says, when he could not stop thinking about the newspaper accounts he was reading about the killings. “I became more and more fascinated by the intricacies of the political situation, and the sort of moral vacuum and the terror that people were going through,” he said in an interview recently. “And slowly the dramaturge in me took over, and I started to think, ‘Well, if you were there, Rogers, facing a situation like this, what would you do, when all your decisions or all your options were monstrous?’ ”

So, Rogers says, he read all he could find on Rwandan history and culture. He pored over thousands of pages on the genocide, and studied the main language of Rwanda, Kinyarwanda. He says he even memorized a 1994 street map of Kigali, the capital. Only when the play was finished did he visit Rwanda, with director Max Stafford-Clark, and meet genocide survivors. “I said, ‘Would you read this play, would you tear it apart if it doesn’t work?’ ” he remembers. “And it was immensely moving and humbling for the general response to be, ‘You got it’.”

“The Overwhelming” centers on an American academic, Jack Exley, who arrives in Kigali with his wife and son just before the killings begin. They meet Western diplomats and aid workers there, and many Rwandans – all played by American actors. The Rwandans include some members of the majority Hutu ethnic group who speak malevolently of the minority Tutsis. “All of these Tutsi doctors, they are Inkoytani [a derogatory term, meaning Tutsi aggressors]. Milk-drinkers. Killers,” says a Rwandan policeman to the professor.

Exley is there to write a book about his old friend, an AIDS doctor who is a Tutsi. But his old friend is missing. As fear and violence ratchet up, the professor is uncertain whom, or what, to believe. Are the Hutus he met truly the victims? Are there really lists of Tutsis to be killed, as some insist? Must he make a choice, when he isn’t even sure what is happening? “We are in a civil war, Jack,” a Tutsi character tells him. “To not choose a side – this is as bad as choosing the wrong one.”

J.T. Rogers says the point of the play is to raise – not answer – moral questions. “I’m interested in trying, at least, to write stories that people will think about afterwards,” he says, “and think about the same questions that prompted me to write the story: In this case, what would it be like to live through an experience like the Rwandan genocide, and what are the facts that led to it, and what does it tell us about ourselves?”

He says Rwandan audience members have a particular reaction to the play. “The comment I get over and over,” he says, “is ‘It was so hard to watch, I wanted to jump up at points and stop the play. Thank you so much for not only writing this play, but for writing it in a way that shows how complicated and morally ambiguous it was’.”