To say “Unexplored Interior (This Is Rwanda: the Beginning and End of the Earth)” is an easy play to watch would negate the horror of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but it is a story that needed to be told again.
The debut play by the Mosaic Theater Company, written by Jay O. Sanders and playing at the Atlas through Nov. 29, is a bitter pill to swallow despite its state-of-the-art lighting, sound and projections that add to the nightmare that transports the audience from pre-genocide Rwanda via the story of Raymond, a Rwandan aspiring filmmaker who leaves his homeland for training and opportunity in New York City.
The play starts off at a sweet time in Rwanda, when the neighboring country, Burundi, had Hutus and Tutsis and the Twa people living in peace. But that was before the plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down while returning from the Arusha Accords, which were intended to quash intertribal violence that had flared up time and again since 1990, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda from Uganda, where Tutsis had been pushed into exile in favor of a Hutu-led government. The assassination of Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira in April1994 caused the Rwandan genocide that took the world by surprise, especially when it went unaddressed by Western nations.
Through the melding of fictional characters such as Raymond and the composite character, Thomas Sibomana, representing the Hutu government officials who inspired and instigated violence against the Tutsis, with real characters such as Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was in charge of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force and was an eyewitness to the genocide, the complex interwoven stories of those who lived and died are fleshed out in 2.5 gripping hours.
The story is anchored by the wise words of Raymond’s grandfather, Felicien, a traditional Tutsi storyteller whose disappearance during the genocide leads Raymond to return 10 years later knowing that the other members of his family had perished. Through his search for Felicien, Raymond learns the fate of his lost love, Cat-treen Bunyanyezi, who became the lover of Sibomana, and his childhood friend Alphonse, whom Raymond later finds out was the killer of his grandfather.
As a first-time playwright, Sanders chose a much-covered but not well-understood topic, as the genocide still perplexes sociologists, historians and, of course, the people who lived it. But through the personal stories of Raymond, Dallaire, Sibomana and Cat-treen and Alphonse and his murderous Burundian cousin, Innocent, this difficult scenario is imbued with passion, wisdom, sensitivity and respect.
The supporting cast, including Kate as the African-American widow of Raymond’s Caucasian mentor and film teacher Alan and the Boy, who plays the torturer and the tortured Rwandan, lends authenticity and color to the unfolding stories as observers and participants in the aftermath.
“Why are we opening our inaugural season with a brand-new play about genocide in Africa?” Mosaic Theater Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth asked. “Because Mosaic is an identity-driven theater, made up of artists from diverse backgrounds, fused by our connection to traumatic history. As African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, South Asians, Africans, we have all been ravaged by loss, disfigured by violence. The persistence of genocide in our times forces us to summon Holocaust history and understand how atrocities still live in our moment – how African-American identity is heightened by identification with the under-told story of African pain. Conjoining these consciousnesses makes for a kinetic fusion, and that’s what we have with this inaugural.”
“Unexplored Interior” is accompanied by a rich roster of community outreach programs at the theater and elsewhere. On Nov. 12, playwright Sanders will speak about this inspiration and process for writing the play at the Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division at noon. Admission is free. Visit mosaictheater.org for more information and scheduled events.