Rogers apparently has two other models in writing thisaffecting drama. One is Anna Deavere Smith, whose multi-character playsabout public catastrophes, like Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 on the Rodney King riots, let a panoply of voices speak so that we might pick our way among them. In The Overwhelming,some of the most arresting pieces of dialogue come from characters onlytangentially related to the main plot, like hospital officials, U.N.peacekeepers or customers in the vegetable market. To accomplish this,many players appear in multiple roles, sporting different costumes andaccents from scene to scene.
Out of Africa: Lindsay McWhorter and James Lloyd Reynolds in Hangar Theatre’s The Overwhelming. Michael Davis Photo.
Secondly, Rogers has been reading contemporary Frenchphilosophy, perhaps even Jean Baudrillard, which tells us that wecannot rely on self-serving reports of those who wish only toaggrandize themselves or their agendas. Only disorder, hard to discern,lies beyond them.
That’s where stage drama re-enters the discussion. In thefirst scene with Jack and Charles, we are inclined to dismiss much ofwhat the older, more experienced man says because of his tone andattitude: The only thing he likes about the country is its importedbeer. Still, Charles gives an overview and introduces leading players,such as Samuel Mizinga (John Eric Parker), a well-spoken but oilyRwandan official whose good manners invite trust. At a polite embassyreception an angry man in native costume (Patrick Prudent) breaks intoa furious tirade in an African language, his eyes flashing, frequentlyciting the name “Rwanda.” When Samuel is asked what the man was saying,he smiles and responds, “He says, ‘Welcome to Rwanda.’”
An even more telling scene comes in a thwarted attempt tobuy a head of cabbage in the marketplace. A polite nearby stranger(Prudent again) translates for the vendor, a hunched old native woman(Lindsay McWhorter), and then sharply advises against purchase. “She isa filthy Tutsi whore,” he barks. “She has poisoned the cabbage, and ifyou eat some, it will kill you!”
Jack Exley has brought his family to Rwanda, and theircentral story resembles a political thriller. With him is Geoffrey(David Kenner), an estranged son from Jack’s marriage, with red hairand very pale skin. Only a high school senior, he makes his own wayinto the local scene, reveling in African music and taking up with akittenish bar girl (McWhorter redux), with whom hehas—implausibly—unprotected sex.
Jack’s second wife is an elegant, pecan tanAfrican-American woman, Linda (Rachel Leslie), who has her owninteraction with Rwandan culture. Her color at first seems like aplaywright’s contrivance, but it tells us that Jack has escapedelementary racism and really sees Rwandans as people, unlike others atthe embassy. Her claim to be African puzzles the locals because of herpale skin and English-only speech.
Unafraid of violence in the countryside (“Hey, I’m fromDetroit!”), she speaks of her rapturous love of the green vegetationand seeks to find a sense of herself as she is sure that a portion ofher African ancestry must be from Rwanda. She never notices, as we do,that every conversation she has is overheard by someone, often aservant who may be Hutu or Tutsi.
As for the thriller element, the search for Dr. JosephGasana that links together the disparate elements, Jack is frustratedat every turn. The two had been friends 10 years, and Jack needs him asthe linchpin of his thesis arguing for heroic if isolated individualvoice whose actions make a real difference. As the head of a pediatricAIDS clinic, Joseph looks like a blend of Mother Theresa and AlbertSchweitzer. When Jack inquires at the clinic, a cool, arrogant doctor(McWhorter, yet again) tells him there is no such person. And he is aTutsi, whose slaughter is about to begin.
More zigzags in the plot, which cannot be revealed, willfollow before Jack learns that Joseph (Chris Chalk), and likelyeveryone else in Rwanda, is not what he seems. In the end old Rwandahand Charles exposes the impotence of the United States and the oldcolonial powers, France and Belgium, by confronting Jack with thequestion of how much sacrifice he would make to try to right theunfolding horrors before him.
Former Hangar artistic director Robert Moss, returnedfrom 12 years at Syracuse Stage, has never been in better form, movingthe action with deliberate speed and allowing us to follow all thediverse lines of argument from French and Dutch diplomats (both JesseBush) and a Bangladeshi officer (Patrick Prudent again). SteveTenEyck’s set of ridged metal columns are skillfully lighted by A.Nelson Ruger IV to switch from the rain forest to a colonial residencein a second. Katrin Naumann’s costumes enhance characterization,especially of the Africans.
Although American-written, The Overwhelming premiered at Royal National’s Cottesloe Theatre in London, the same stage that gave us, for example, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman. Likethem, this is a work that grabs you by the throat and shakes awaycomplacency, all the while fascinating, challenging, and even—not tomake light of its moral tone—delighting. It’s a play, athought-provoking one, not a lecture or a tract.
This production runs through Saturday, June 14. See Times Table for information.