nytheatre.com review by James Harrison Monaco
August 13, 2010
Jenni Wolfson spent three years in Rwanda during the Hutu-Tutsi genocide as a Humanitarian Aid worker for the UN. I didn't. Neither did anyone I know. This makes Jenni Wolfson worth listening to in almost any circumstance. It gives her strange, fascinating stories. She tells some of them in her autobiographical solo-show Rash.
At its strongest moments, Rash feels like I'm across a coffee table from an acquaintance who just returned from a long journey. She's casual and still confused about everything. One story moves to the next without logic as she continues to makes sense of it all. Her memories are vivid and random. Her body makes accidental gestures that indicate an entire life. If you've ever sat with someone in this unique state—when they're still processing their experience but haven't yet polished it into an "inspiring" memoir—then you may know that it can be magical. It's so unplanned. You get to watch the odd bits of life collect around them as they talk.
This remembering in Rash is thrilling. Wolfson says that work in the genocide plagued her with a million questions and gave her no time to think about them. The first half of Rash does the same to the audience. Wolfson describes Rwanda's lush landscape, then a field of dead bodies, then makes a bad joke about her father, then remembers a prison and telling her credit card operator that terrorists had stolen her card at gunpoint. Each evokes a mass of thoughts I have to stash away for later.
In the second half she tries to tie it all up in a theme about love and growth. Rash then becomes what I had been so glad it wasn't: an amateur memoir, out to prove that the memoirist's life has not only the excitement but also the structure of a movie. She talks about leaving the field. She picks up knitting. She reflects on lost love and has a revelation. Everything gets summed up in an E.B. White quote projected on the wall about deciding whether to "save" or "savor" the world. It's a good quote but of course a reduction. It doesn't have an atom of the richness of the first half, where she gave no themes or questions. She is a woman who's seen tremendous things—she does not strike me as the philosophical type.
I don't mean that as a jab. Every day from nine to five Wolfson-as-genocide-aid-worker grappled, hands on, against all the great existential foes: death, meaninglessness, the corruptibility of the soul. I respect that far more than the artists who analyze these horrors their whole lives and never touch a thing.