nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
July 15, 2007
Solo theatre doesn't get any better than this. I am writing this review as fast as I can and hopefully still do the performance justice, because I want you to grab the show before it goes across the pond to Edinburgh Fringe. Rash by Jenni Wolfson doesn't even feel like a "show"—it's so real and irresistible you want to demand the rest of her 10-plus year journey that the mere one hour could not possibly cover. And it's actually about post-genocide wreckage and unbearable human loss.
Jenni is entirely real, albeit with a resume that inspires awe. After getting a master's degree in Human Rights, she goes back to her parent's home in Scotland to celebrate. That's when she gets a message on the answering machine, "Jenni, this is Carmen from the United Nations, can you leave next week for Rwanda?" It leads to three years in Rwanda, two years in Haiti, and travels to 25 other countries as a UN human rights and humanitarian worker.
Jenni's family is not, and never has been, happy with her career choice. But she is highly motivated. With a flight ticket to Rwanda that says "we are not responsible for your life," a full-blown case of chicken pox that she was scared to tell anyone about for fear of being pulled out, and a suitcase full of teabags, Jenni embraces her mission and fellow workers from around the globe, initially viewing it as an exciting and exclusive party, a humanitarian Woodstock. Then the reality hits.
The initiation into Rwanda includes visiting a prison of 8,000 war criminals—men, women and children—in a space built for 500. "Don't enter the prison if you can't handle it," she is told, "There's no room to faint." Things don't get easier from there. There are bodies, gunshots, and nerve-wracking waiting for help in silence—or worse, with strained, normal conversations—and wondering if you are wrong to make not only your own, but your family's life a hell.
Life and death collide, and reporting a lost credit card becomes an absurdist theatrical event. Often times Wolfson sits in a comfortable armchair on stage, knitting away with orange yarn as she tells her gripping stories with humor and humility. She paints a picture so human and immediate that you can almost see the shack of a restaurant—the only one—in Kibuye where she calls early to order grilled chicken for dinner, to give them time to catch and cook it. You can almost feel the suffocating mud on her face as she was bound and dragged away in a terrible attack.
At some point this "Scottish Jew falls madly in love with a Cameroonian Animist," Bernard. Love enriches her experience there as nothing else could. You get a clear sense of heightened emotional gravity from this relationship in a war-torn land, between lovers from two entirely different worlds. It's tender, it's funny, and it's maddening. It's like any other love story, except you are driving over land mines, literally.
Through all this, Jenni has a rash on her face and other parts of her body that comes and goes, manifesting her inner turmoil. Her view of the world and her life, and indeed of herself, evolves and shifts and surprises. Her knitting morphs into an allegory for her story.
Wolfson's deft writing is complemented by Jen Nails's direction. She utilizes the space and props, as well as an overhead screen, to their maximum effect, keeping the stage in high tension. The show also employs the most ingenious way to present projected photos that I have seen. Throughout I was enthralled, entertained, and very much enlightened. Get a ticket to see it while you can, for an eyewitness account of one of the most horrific crimes in our lifetime, for an illuminating experience, and most of all, for the chance to meet a truly remarkable human being.