Saturday, January 7, 2017

Unloading the burden of guilt: Phoenix Theatre presents NNPN 'Dogs of Rwanda,' a one-actor one-act

An old saying has it that if you would set out on a campaign of revenge, first dig two graves.
The maxim applies mainly to the futility of letting
Rob Johansen plays David, who learns the hard way how difficult it can be to deal with bad memories.
calculated retribution rule your life. But what if the opportunity for revenge bubbles up in the moment?

The "moment" in "Dogs of Rwanda" is the genocidal civil war in that south African nation in 1994. It originated after a plane crash that killed Rwanda's Hutu president generated a bloodbath between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, with total casualties well into seven figures. The conflict claimed mostly Tutsis, to which the play's unseen central figure belongs. Phoenix Theatre opened a production of Sean Christopher Lewis' one-act drama Friday night.

Producing director Bryan Fonseca directs Rob Johansen as a man approaching middle age trying come to terms with his accidental encounter with that war's horrors two decades earlier. Through David's eyes, we revisit the episode only to find him sorely vexed by what he has omitted from a published memoir, thanks to a note from a survivor companion. The omission, amounting to a cluster of "untruths" ascribed to him by the Tutsi youth he befriended during the horror, is painfully brought forward in the course of David's retrospective account.
David reads from his book, pocked by "untruths."

Through the National New Play Network, the Phoenix is presenting (through Jan. 15) the play's first professional production since Lewis created the role originally for himself. It was put into the schedule just before "How to Use a Knife" enters the Phoenix season Jan. 19. The Will Snider play is set in a New York City restaurant and focuses on the friendship between a high-strung chef and a quiet Rwandan dishwasher. The show, whose cast also includes Johansen, is also an NNPN "rolling world premiere."

"Dogs of Rwanda" presents the narrator David, who has self-consciously become a writer after his harrowing experience, confronting the effects of his naivete and his self-serving reshaping of reality.  What he has written about a missionary colleague he's smitten with, Mary, and the young Tutsi they encountered on a walk away from the missionary camp in Uganda is different from what both Mary and their African contemporary know to be true.

David's revisionist take on what followed their encounter with marauding Hutus  has kept the Tutsi youth from moral liberation as a man, the bearer of both external and internal scars. When David returns to the scene 22 years afterward as guest of that man — named, after a common African fashion of giving children hopeful names, God's Blessing — he can't escape just how wrong his book is. The healed nation is eerie. There are memorials, there is "atrocity tourism." And, as always after such upheavals, there are unsettled scores.

Lewis' narrative is layered suspensefully with a preliminary story of David's trip to Hawaii with a girlfriend long after his first visit to Rwanda as a teen. In Hawaii, a spiritual ritual makes clear to him how blocked he is from transcending the guilt of not telling the Rwanda story the way he knows it to have happened. All this is included as a frontispiece for a recording the play's audience is presumed to be attending. The recording is meant for Mary's ears — David's attempt to make amends. The audience thus is both eavesdropper and therapeutic listener.

Johansen's mastery of the story's layering is complete. The lighter notes in the Hawaii story, darkening to the mystery of why David is not evidently affected by the ritual he and his girlfriend have ascended toward, are confidently struck. There's a relaxation about the actor's tale-spinning that consorts well with the suspense, with our certainty that a scarifying experience is about to unfold, prodded by David's guilt.
 
In the voices of the two women, Johansen changes his tone slightly, but without mimicry. His vivid assumption of the God's Blessing persona buttonholes our emotions. It's as if we are facing, through this uncanny African holocaust, the guilty episodes of our own First World lives that may have left us in need of forgiveness. 

The intensity and exquisite timing in Johansen's performance are likely to remind us that, as David learned, vengeance exercised on the spur of the moment may, like the deliberate kind, also start turning over the earth for more than one grave. And remembering only partially how that happened means our dirty hands are on the shovel, too.

[Photos provided by Phoenix Theatre]