nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 19, 2011
Muzungu takes place in Rwanda, in a hotel in the small city of Nyagatare. Matthew is a young man working with a group of Americans who are installing an up-to-date computer infrastructure in the hotel. We meet Matthew in the hotel's massage parlor, where his masseuse is Mattie, a self-professed "expert" at her trade but a woman of few words and little trust. The play tracks a succession of visits that Matthew makes to Mattie's table, over a period of a few months. Eventually Matthew gets her to open up about some of the authentically tragic and horrendous events she's experienced and witnessed, and though their relationship certainly can be said to deepen, it is never romantic in any sense of that word; the one barrier Matthew never breaks down is Mattie's fundamental distrust of, well, just about everyone—but perhaps especially well-meaning foreigners.
For me, the play reached its crescendo in a scene in which Matthew and Mattie give voice to their contrasting perspectives. He is excited by the way that Rwanda has apparently rebounded from its horrific civil war and is rushing headlong into the 21st century abetted by modern-day missionaries from the West like himself. As for Mattie, she sums up her feelings with admirable brevity: Rwanda, she says, is broken.
I was hopeful that Myers would explore this astonishing dichotomy; but the play instead moves in another direction, involving Rwanda's famous mountain gorillas. The gorillas feel like a symbol or metaphor, but I couldn't make out for what; when Muzungu ended I was unclear as to what I was supposed to take away from it. The play's pacing felt slow though I was always curious about what would happen next. Nneoma Nkuku and Ryan Victor Pierce give compelling performances as Mattie and Matthew (though when Nkuku turned upstage, it was sometimes difficult to hear or understand her heavily accented English). In crafting Muzungu as a sequence of massages (limiting the setting, action, and options available to the characters), Myers has created a challenging work for those on stage and in the audience. I think this, more than any other aspect of this intriguing play, is what makes me interested to discover what he comes up with next.