The one-woman show Miracle in Rwanda—starring Malaika Uwamahoro and directed by George Drance—relates the true-life experiences of Immaculée Ilibagiza. As a young woman, she survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda by hiding for more than three months in a 3×4 foot bathroom along with five—and, eventually, seven—other human beings: all women and girls. The play uses the tag line “An Inspirational True Story of Hope and Forgiveness,” but how much inspiration can be gleaned from such a horrific story?
The playwrights, Leslie Lewis and Edward Vilga, seem to be aware of this difficulty. At the top of the play, they have Immaculée address the audience: “[S]ome say that my story is a sad story. But I know that there is hope. There is still laughter in the world. And after all, I was just a girl from a village in Central East Africa, yet here I am, speaking to you in English. In New York City…. I wish for every genocide survivor to be so blessed. So I know that there is hope. But you can decide.”
Lewis and Vilga spend little time on exposition. Within the play’s first few minutes, we learn about the onset of the crisis, whereby ruling Hutu militia leaders determine to exterminate all Tutsi living in the country. We watch as Immaculée’s father sends her away to the home of a local pastor—a Hutu, but also a family friend. Because the pastor wants no one else in his house to know of Immaculée’s and the other escapees’ presence, he has them crowd into a space that only he knows exists. That so many human beings could endure such a claustrophobic situation for so long is in itself something of a miracle—especially when a loud and threatening Hutu militiaman comes by the house periodically, in search of Tutsi fugitives to slaughter.
Uwamahoro is a gifted performer—very much up to the task of portraying Immaculée and the other characters. She shifts from one role to another with ease, partly through crisp and assertive vocal transitions and partly by varying the way she carries herself physically. Her expressive eyes are a great asset.
The stage is bare except for a rectangle marked off by tape—center stage—showing the dimensions of the tiny hiding place. With no physical set to speak of, much of the world of the play is created by sound designer Taiwo Heard and—especially—lighting designers Erich Keil and Gina Costagliola. They bathe the stage in a bloody red at the top of the performance and help to mark the passage of time in a montage in which, through a succession of quick bursts of light followed by darkness, we see Immaculée’s various moments of prayer.
Uwamahoro stays within the confines of the rectangle for much of the show when playing Immaculée and the other fugitives, but she moves about the entire stage when portraying other characters. At one point, members of the pastor’s household go away for an evening, so he allows the women and girls to venture to a larger room to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on television. This does not go well.
In addition to coping with the ever-present threat of murder, the devoutly Christian Immaculée harbors a difficult inner conflict. When she prays the Lord’s Prayer, she is unable to speak the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” On her way to the pastor’s house, she had seen the machete-slashed corpses that her trespassers had left strewn throughout the countryside. How, she wonders, can such savagery be absolved?
Eventually, she and the other escapees learn that the French government, under a United Nations mandate, has set up a refugee camp nearby. They gather the courage to leave the house and seek safety there. In one of the play’s most dramatically resonant sequences, another survivor shows her a log that lists the names of Tutsi people killed in the area. She peruses it to learn the fate of her family members and neighbors. Afterward, it becomes even harder for her to find forgiveness, but she comes closer to doing so as time passes.
No one can question the good intentions or sincerity of the creators of this play. But a monodrama may not be the best format for telling this particular story. We get some sense of the cramped room where the refugees hide, but the fact that only one actor is onstage makes it hard to grasp what it is like to be packed tight with seven other human beings for weeks on end. The playwrights and Uwamahoro do attempt to give us some sense of who Immaculée‘s fellow fugitives are, but because they must be silent most of the time, we don’t really get to know them well. The focus is on Immaculée’s ordeal—not on that of the others. The play’s short running time doesn’t allow room for such side stories in any case.
Even as Immaculée nears her epiphany about forgiveness and hope, we’re reminded that she is one of the lucky ones who managed to get out of this extermination effort alive. So many thousands did not have the luxury of awaiting an epiphany, of having a prayer answered, of experiencing a “miracle.” Immaculée’s words at the beginning of the play are right: We, the audience can decide how much hope, if any, the play provides. If we leave the theater buoyed by “inspiration,” however, are we deluding ourselves? Glimpses of optimism are one thing—but can many survivors of genocide truly feel “blessed”? Can they embrace hope unconditionally, ever again?
Miracle in Rwanda (extended through May 11, 2019)
Magis Theatre Company, Acuity Productions and Broadview Phoenix
Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: 80 minutes