Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Overwhelming"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Stuart Kurtz


A Divided Country
"The Overwhelming"

Reviewed by Stuart Kurtz

When the genteel civility of an embassy cocktail party slowly and gently begins to unravel, what does it say about Rwanda's chance for survival? In act one, scene five of J.T. Rogers play, The Overwhelming, running through November 21 at Company One, the resident company of Boston Center for the Arts, the divisions between people emerge through the banter of polite society. Those divisions, heated and tortured by the forces of history, will take a higher toll by the end of act two than a few bruised egos.

While this production fails to convey the white hot fear of impending and then starting genocide, save for the work of two actors, Roger's skill at presenting to Westerners a place with no heroes, where aggressive impulses overtake good intention, is the reason to see this drama.

Jack Exley (Doug Bowen-Flynn), the protagonist, knows about divisions. The divorced poli-sci professor is seeking tenure and will go to extremes to get it. When the idea of creating a book based on the work of his friend and college roomie, Joseph Gasana (Cedric Lilly), and his work at the children’s AIDS clinic in Kigali, Rwanda, comes to his mind, he packs up his new wife, Linda (Lindsay Allyn Cox), and moody 17 year-old son, Geoffrey (Gabe Goodman), for the chance.

The rub is that no one seems to know where Joseph is, and the social and political bonds between people reveal lies and flaws in the social fabric. The “paradise,” Linda evinces is not the Rwanda of April, 1994.

At that time the Rwandan Patriotic Front, composed of extreme Tutsis, presumably shot down the plane of President Hayarimana of Rwanda and President Gyprien Ntaryamira of neighboring Burundi. One hundred days of violence occurred, resulting in the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi tribe people and moderate Hutus. The physical differences between the Hutus and Tutsis (Hutus are more squat; Tutsis are taller, with angular facial features) were exploited by the Belgian colonizers in 1933 and carried into the years of post-colonial independence. The Belgians at first installed Tutsis as the leaders of society. They later changed allegiance from the Tutsi monarchy to the Hutu workers. The resulting rivalries between the groups would erupt in 1990-1994 and then again after the plane shooting incident. The Arusha Peace Agreement of 1993 meant to hold together a tenous nation, but it could not tame the long hatreds between the tribes.

Those hatreds probably existed before the Belgians or their German colonial predecessors arrived. As Jean-Claude Buisson (Mason Sand), a French diplomat in Kigali, the capital, propounds to Linda, you can only blame Belgium or any colonial power so far. Then you have to look at the internal situation. The palimpsest of Rwanda was re-written a few times with stability in mind. The original text must have been penned with seething tribal jealousies.

The Exleys are not ready for this pressure cooker. Jack’s book theme on people who make a difference, including Gasana, and Linda’s own writing, in which she wants to peel back a multitude of meanings to show “how connected we are to each other” reveal their naïveté. They hint at the naïveté of Americans and Europeans on the prospect for peace.

The Exley’s might look to their own family discord if they want to understand the divisions between Hutus and Tutsis. A seeming harmonious marriage between a white man and African-American – and there’s an oxymoron right there, says Samuel Mizinga (John Adekoje), a government official – is really hampered by hidden mistrusts, borderline racism on both sides, and a past failed marriage. Add to that the teenage angst of Geoffrey, himself a survivor of trauma, and you have a union whose license might as well be a peace accord.

The bare bones, Beckett-like, almost non-existent sets of Sean Cote are appropriate in that no physical design could express the mental image of mass murder. Can one really enjoy basketry and batik wall hangings when one knows what is going on outside this or that interior?

Rogers wrote multiple roles for some of the actors, a move that hints, perhaps, at our divided selves.

The director, Shawn Lacount is not especially demanding of his actors. There are moments when Bowen-Flynn, as Jack, goes from impatience to desperation, yes. Still, there is no sense of white-knuckled fear permeating the house. Only Obehi Janice as Elise Kayitesi, Joseph’s wife, conveys with her wide eyes that she has seen some terrible events. John Adekoje as Samuel Mizinga imparts the anger of a man of civilized grace and language undone by the darker forces within him. And that is really the crux of it. The connections between us as no match for our innate aggressions, or the divisions we create between us.

"The Overwhelming" (30 October - 21 November)
COMPANY ONE
@ Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1(617)933-8600

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"The Overwhelming" (30 October - 21 November) >
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