By Asiimwe Deborah Kawe and Sean Christopher Lewis; Directed by Katie Pearl
Produced by En Garde Arts
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.1.18
101 Greenwich Street, 9th Floor
by Asya Danilova on 6.14.18
Sifiso Mabena in Red Hills. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: Red Hills transforms an empty office space into the grasslands of Rwanda, providing a place for dialogue and personal justice.
According to the “official version” of the events, the Rwandan genocide started on April 6, 1994 and lasted for a hundred days. But according to our guide God’s Blessing (a Tutsi genocide survivor himself, played by the radiant Patrick J. Ssenjovu), there were many instances of genocide. As tourists from America, we often get our facts from secondary sources, but even the most well-intended of them might be mistaken or straight up hiding the truth.
Red Hills, a site-specific production based on Sean Christopher Lewis's play Dogs of Rwanda, questions who has the right to tell history. Asiimwe Deborah Kawe, Red Hills’ co-author of Ugandan decent, joins her voice to Lewis's in order to create a dialogue of equals. The result is an honest conversation, full of laughter and heartache, between unlikely companions in misery. The seamless collaboration of two authors elevates the monologue of a privileged white man (Dogs of Rwanda) and returns the voice to those whose story it is in the first place.
After checking in at the lobby of a building in the Financial District, we scan our badges and get to the 9th floor, the newly opened headquarters of The Peacebuilding Hub, an NGO. Founder and CEO David Zosia (Christopher McLinden) has made it his mission to bring peace and forgiveness to the countries disturbed by conflicts of war after witnessing the mass killings of Tutsi. As part of his presentation, Dr. Zosia reads from Dogs of Rwanda, a memoir he wrote as a young adult, which made him world famous. He tells of how he went to Uganda as a part of missionary group when he was 16 and met a boy of the same age called God’s Blessing.
As David’s face flushes from nervousness and discomfort, the ghosts of the unresolved past enter the clean office space. God’s Blessing joyfully rides on his bike across the stage and hallucinatory voices call from the corners (masterful sound design by Farai Malianga). Before he finishes, the metaphorical tribune is snatched from beneath David’s feet and the audience is under the spell of a new narrator, God’s Blessing. All of a sudden, we are on our feet, sightseeing in Rwanda.
The handsome tour guide immediately wins us over with his contagious smile and pride for his travel agency. Ssenjovu’s performance is lively and forceful, and watching him savor Kawe’s tart jokes is very refreshing. The effect is strengthened by the contrast of horrifying stories of genocide in which his entire family perished. God’s Blessing shows us Ntarama Church, now a memorial, where the mass killings took place. The clothes that people wore that day lie on the benches and hang from a rope tied across the room. This part of the journey feels a little cramped as the audience passes by this haunting sight in a constantly moving conveyor with no time to really look at the installation and reflect.
Another large space of an office building under construction is transformed into the African Great Lakes region with efficient minimalism. The stark white walls are lit from below (spot-on lighting design by Brian Aldous and Adam Macks) and are in perfect dissonance with the crude concrete floor and spotted ceiling. Red dirt hills framing the room are mounted with wisps of tall grass. A monumental disc of the sun occupies one side of the room, and a semi-circle of wooden benches and cushions is on the other. This is where God’s Blessing takes David after picking him up at the airport for their private Gacaca, with the audience as witnesses.
Gacaca court is a form of traditional communal justice that was restarted in 2001 by the new Rwandan government, which was unable to put the 130,000 alleged perpetrators of genocide through the official court system. God’s Blessing seeks his own justice as he and David recreate the events of the night they first set forth in search of God’s Blessing’s missing parents. The scrupulous unwinding of the past is filled with bitterness and horror, and the poignant singing and music by Farai Malianga and Sifiso Mabena backs up the meditative pace. Dressed in traditional African clothes (costumes by Angela M. Fludd), they, like mirages of God’s Blessing’s parents, appear and disappear but are always present through sound.
(Red Hills plays at 101 Greenwich Street, 9th Floor, through July 1, 2018. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7. Tickets are $25 and $45 and are available at engardearts.org.)
Red Hills is by Asiimwe Deborah Kawe and Sean Christopher Lewis. Directed by Katie Pearl. Set Design by Adam Rigg. Lighting Design by Brian Aldous and Adam Macks. Sound Design and Composition by Farai Malianga. Costume Design by Angela M. Fludd. Production Stage Manager is Andrea Wales.
The cast is Patrick J. Ssenjovu and Christopher McLinden. Live Music by Farai Malianga and Sifiso Mabena.