Upon entering the York Theatre, located inside Saint Peter’s Church, theatergoers will find a space that resembles a photo gallery as much as a church or a theater. Through the Eyes of Children: The Rwanda Project features photographs shot by child survivors of the Rwandan genocide. The exhibit provides contextualization for Sonja Linden’s play, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, a fictional account of one such child. Produced by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, the production opens to a young woman, silhouetted against a background bathed in bright yellow light, loudly and clearly describing the night her family was killed. From there, the play moves to a London refugee center which Simon, her writing teacher, describes as “industrial” and to her bleak hostel bedroom. Both settings, as conceived by light designer Tony Mulanix and set designer Rohit Kapoor, are made up of grays. With the guidance of Simon, Juliette spends the duration of the play learning to speak truth to horror, and, as she does, color is gradually reintroduced to her world.
“It’s the personal story that will make people really understand what went on,” explains Simon, as he urges Juliette to rewrite her historical examination of the genocide as a personal account. By exploring large scale human atrocities through a two-character play, Sonja, who based the play in part on her relationship with a young woman she met while working with Rwandan refugees, is clearly attempting to heed the advice she has her character say. Yet, despite the fully realized, decidedly entertaining performances delivered by both actors, there is not enough in the text to move either character beyond convenient archetype.
The production purports to educate audiences about the Rwandan genocide, but those atrocities take a backseat to the budding friendship between Simon and Juliette, which forms the heart of the story. That Juliette has survived a unique horror has little bearing on the familiar tale of a flawed but kindly mentor guiding a scarred protégé to regain her own voice. With some textual tweaking, Juliette could become a survivor of gang violence or child abuse, and the essence of the story would go unchanged. That may be director Elise Stone’s point – that underneath, we’re really all just the same – but the lack of specificity feels inappropriate and misguided.
Susan Heyward nails the role of Juliette with a spunky sense of self and a bravely upturned chin, while Joseph J. Menino lends Simon a bemused smile and heartfelt confidence in his new friend. Much of the sweet humor created by their relationship is of the cultural misunderstanding variety common to immigrant experiences (he thinks how impressed she must be by his car; she notes that it’s not as nice as her father’s). As they’re relationship grows, Simon becomes conscious of his own ignorance and takes it upon himself to learn about the genocide his pupil survived. Still, his newfound awareness of key dates in Rwandan history hardly constitutes “a lot” as Juliette comments near the end of the play. The problem is emblematic of the entire production; in its attempts to be universal, the production sacrifices a level of detail that might have made it genuinely enlightening.
At best, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document… will serve as a surprisingly upbeat hour and a half that celebrates survival while inspiring audiences to educate themselves further on global human rights atrocities. With cute humor and likable characters, it’s hard to think of another play about genocide as pleasant to watch as this one.
While most of the play focuses on Simon helping Juliette to find the words for her testimony, she helps him with his writing as well. He finds her story so inspirational that the poems he writes about her, we are told, are the first masterful pieces of writing he’s completed in years. It appears that Sonja was likewise touched by her experiences working with refugee populations; I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document… is the playwright’s version of her character’s poems. If she had a teacher like Simon urging her toward specificity, her writing might improve as much her characters’ does.