Yesterday, I saw the matinee of JT Rogers’s The Overwhelming at the National Theatre. It was the last day of production before they go on tour, and my last chance to see an old school friend who’s in the play (he’s also in the film, Severance). The play is about the Rwandan genocide. As I was typing that last sentence, I was going to say “the play is about Rwanda”, signifying how synonymous Rwanda and genocide have become.
Overall, I'd say that Clive Stafford Smith's Out of Joint team has done it again.The problem with watching any dramatised version of the 1994 genocide is that you know what’s coming up. However jolly things are, human blood will soon be spilled. And no amount of paranoia is excessive, heck, paranoia is a mild condition considering what actually happens. What matters is not how grisly the director can make the inevitable hacking scenes, but what comes before.
I’ve seen Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs, and The Overwhelming is the best treatment of Kigali pre-genocide. JT Rogers squeezes in as much history and context as possible in a two and half hours. In Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs, the idea of the RPF as a non-governmental destabilising force was never really explored. This is a difficult concept to accept – that a liberation force can be bad. Hezbollah, the ANC, the argument is universal.
It’s not about the Interahamwe being angels, but neither is it about the RPF being the Virgin Mary. One of the characters (I don’t remember which one) talks constantly about context, and that is what this play does. The Belgians have faced most of backlash on their colonial policy of separating what appeared to be a same people, and separating them, Hutu here, Tutsi there. The French diplomat, Jean Claude Buisson (played by Nick Fletcher, whose NGO worker is a scene-stealer), says to Linda White-Keeler (played by a delectable Tanya Moodie), “how do you save a Belgian from drowning?” “I don’t know,” she replies. Then an almost gleeful expression flashes across Buisson’s face, “Good.”
The main thrust of the story is the arrival of an American academic, Jack Exley, his son Geoffrey, and African-American wife, Linda White-Keeler (Geoffrey’s stepmother) in Kigali. They’re there to meet a doctor friend, Joseph Gasana, who, in the past, was imprisoned by the government, and subsequently passed on information to RPF rebels. They don’t find him, and it turns out that among other things, the AIDS doctor is accused of letting Hutu children die, so that the extra medicines can be given to Tutsi children.
In the build-up to the start of the genocide, the language is tinged with foreboding. 12 years on, we can tell. Back then it would have just been an ordinary conversation between people. Samuel Mizinga is a Hutu politician in the “broad-based transitional government”. Scarcely is it possible for a man to exude both charm and menace with equal truth as Danny Sapani manages.
Mizinga tells Linda, who comes increasingly under his spell, that, “we’re like the Swiss of Africa, or maybe it is they who are like us. We’re very efficient here, people take orders well.” And it is a genocide running with the efficiency of a Swiss watch that the militias were able to kill 800,000 people within a couple of months. Even the names of the militias point to efficiency. Interahamwe: those who fight together (some translate it as “those who hunt together”. Impuzamugambi: those who have the same goal.
People like Mizinga are the ones the world should be looking out for. The intellectual purveyors of evil, the ones that moderate people look to and see sense. The Joseph Goebbels of this world. The demagogues who seduce you with their charm and intellect. They read Balzac and Nietzsche and listen to classical music. Surely he must be saying the truth.
There’s so much more to write about this play, but I’m tired, and sleepy, and I don’t want to get fired. But think on this utterance by the Bangladeshi UN soldier, “A black African man. What is that in this world? Not even seen in the eyes of God.” If you look at the continent, you’ll see what he means.