I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document. . .
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 13, 2008
Try to imagine what it would be like if, one day, your neighbor came to your house with a dozen associates and told them to kill you and your family—and then, with machetes, they did exactly that. This is, essentially, what happened in the Rwanda genocide in 1994; this kind of thing has happened and continues to happen throughout human history. But even though we read about it, do we ever really feel it (unless it actually happens to us or to someone close to us)?
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda is a play that lets us get much closer than usual to this awesomely horrific experience. Playwright Sonja Linden has cannily constructed this piece as a fish-out-of-water sort of story, pairing Simon, a British poet/novelist who is teaching writing to refugees, with one of his students, Juliette, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who has come to live in the UK. Juliette has written about what happened in Rwanda, and the lengthy manuscript that she presents to Simon at their very first meeting is the one that gives the play its possibly too-long title: Juliette fantasizes that as soon as Simon casts his eyes on her life's work, he will immediately call a prominent publisher and make her and her book famous.
But that's not what happens in this play, and while I don't want to give too much away (because it actually is full of surprises and humor, its basic subject matter notwithstanding), I will tell you that the thrust of Linden's work is to show us how Juliette learns to trust and understand Simon and his world while he learns how little he actually knows about hers and tries to rectify that. The acquisition of knowledge, comprehension, and real acceptance of each other and each other's cultures is the theme of the play; it makes the piece universal, and reminds us that if this sort of authentic, human exchange could just occur over and over again in the world, one pair of disparate individuals at a time, it is just possible that another Rwanda genocide could never happen, or if it did, that at least people who might be able to do something to stop it—say, Westerners—might actually try to stop it.
This is, somehow, a lesson that keeps needing to be taught; Linden teaches it with so much intelligence and warmth and theatrical know-how that Remarkable Document never feels like a lesson, not even for a nanosecond. But it always feels remarkable, as it unfolds its tale of a how a more-or-less failed poet and a completely shattered and broken young woman are able to grow and thrive from their encounters with one another.
Elise Stone, who is best-known as an actor of long-standing on the New York stage, here serves as director, and her work at the helm is exceptional. (She is assisted by Karen Case Cook.) The action takes place mostly in Juliette's very small and spare room at a hostel or in Simon's nearly as spartan office; Stone and her designer Rohit Kapoor wisely keep the stage dressing to a minimum, using two chairs and a table in tandem with Tony Mulanix's skillful lighting to establish locale.
There are just two actors, and their work is superb. Joseph Menino is Simon, and he gives us a fine portrayal, warts and all, of a man who is transformed in ways he doesn't entirely understand himself from his singular experience.
Susan Heyward not only convinces us that she is a 20-something Rwandan immigrant (in terms of how she speaks and how she carries herself), but really lets us into the oh-so-troubled heart and mind of this young woman who has been through things that can only be described as unimaginable. Somehow Heyward has imagined them and found a way to own and then communicate them, so that Juliette is never simply a figure of pity or tragedy, but rather a fully-formed person trying to cope with an awful past and yet still survive, to find some reason to go on living.
Even though what's described here is as bleak and terrible as any deed ever perpetrated by one human against another, the message at the heart of Linden's play is ultimately very hopeful. Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak: about a third of the proceeds from this play will benefit charitable organizations that are working to care for the survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Phoenix is also presenting (in the theatre lobby) an exhibit featuring photographs taken by children at the Imbabazi Orphanage, where many of the children whose parents were victims of the genocide, have been cared for. Now they just need their audience to do something equally tangible to make a difference in the lives of these victims...and to keep there from being any more like them in the future.