nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 27, 2007
A program note tells us that J.T. Rogers took the title for his play from a translation of the Mongo word lokeli, used to describe the conquest of the Congolese people by the Belgians in the late 19th century. But "overwhelming" is also an apt description for the events depicted in this drama—the implosion of Rwanda in the mid-1990s—particularly as they feel to people like me, outside of this troubled African nation and comfortably safe in America, seemingly powerless to make them stop. But make them stop we must, for even if today Rwanda is relatively calm, other places with similar stories (e.g., Darfur) are not.
Several of the Rwandan characters in The Overwhelming tell us more than once that Americans don't know anything about their country and don't care about it. That's the reason why Rogers's play is so important.
It takes place in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in early 1994. An American professor, Jack Exley, has come here to write the book that he is sure will earn him tenure and secure his career, a book about a Rwandan doctor named Joseph Gasana, founder and operator of a children's AIDS clinic. Jack has come here with his new wife, Linda, a journalist; and his 17-year-old son from a first marriage, Geoff. Geoff's mother recently died, and Jack is hoping that this trip will help him bond with this young man whom he does not know very well.
But it turns out that Jack's old friend Joseph is the enigma here: though he wrote to Jack just one week before Jack's arrival in Rwanda, Joseph is now nowhere to be found. The hospital where he is supposed to have worked says they've never heard of him; the AIDS clinic has shut down without a trace; and Joseph's wife, Elise, shows up saying she hasn't seen her husband in days. The shape of The Overwhelming is a suspense thriller a la John Le Carre or Robert Ludlum (though alas not so skillful as either of those gentlemen's works), as Jack and Linda search for clues to explain Joseph's disappearance.
The answer is easy to predict, at least with the hindsight of history, for Joseph is a Tutsi, and at the same time that Jack and Linda arrive in Rwanda, the destruction of the Tutsis is being planned by extremist Hutus who are taking control of the government. The Overwhelming depicts, in the context of this personal story, the days leading up to the genocide of the Tutsis, in which (according to Wikipedia) about 800,000 were killed in about three months.
What Rogers does best in this play is to show us how insidious and persuasive cultural hatred can be; it is personified largely in the play's most interesting character, Samuel Mizinga, a well-educated, sophisticated government official who turns out to be one of the leaders of the anti-Tutsi forces. Charles Parnell, in what is not surprisingly the play's sharpest performance, makes Mizinga fascinating and repellent. He's joined in the large cast, under the direction of Max Stafford-Clark, by Ron Cephas Jones (as Joseph), Linda Powell (as Linda), Sam Robards (as Jack), Michael Stahl-David (excellent as Geoff), and James Rebhorn (also very good as a pragmatic U.S. embassy official stationed in Rwanda).
Rogers also does a good job putting a human face on this monolithic event, though more so in the case of the American (innocent?) bystanders than that of the Rwandan victims. I wish that Rogers had pulled way from the Ludlow-esque urge to implicate just about all of his characters in Rwandan politics of one kind another—a few genuinely unaffiliated people, simply trying to live their day-to-day lives in the face of looming horror, would have helped build empathy in a way that a roster of militants and double-agents cannot.
Nevertheless, there's real value to this play, trying to reverse the notion that lies at its center, namely, that Americans could care less about what happens in Africa. See this play, and see Dan Hoyle's even more pointed Tings Dey Happen at The Culture Project, and you'll find that it's nearly impossible not to care.