Genocide is Boring
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me By a Young Lady From Rwanda is a play about a young lady from Rwanda who is trying to write a remarkable document. Good for her! Literature is a high and noble pursuit, and I hope this young Rwandan succeeds where playwright Sonja Linden has so abysmally failed.
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document is not a very remarkable document. It is the story told largely by tediously expository glimpses into the two characters' internal monologues of a frustrated writer-turned-teacher named Simon (John van Dalen), and the friendship he develops with a young lady named Juliette (Tara Vodihn), a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. She has written a history of said genocide, tracing its roots to colonialism and old tribal antipathies. Simon finds it bone-dry. He suggests she put more of herself into it, make it more of a memoir and less of a study. When the young lady from Rwanda tries to do so, the attempt turns into a painful exorcism of her inner demons. Catharsis! Resolution! Peace!
Which I guess makes this a story about the redeeming power of art. That would be interesting you've got to admit, exploring the notion that scribbling in a notebook can somehow ameliorate the trauma of seeing your family hacked to bits by machetes is worth an hour or two in a theater but the idea is taken nowhere. You understand that this is the play's thesis statement within the first five minutes of taking your seat. Not only is it obvious in the drama unfolding onstage; the playwright even had this to say in her program notes: "What started out as a testimonial act, the writing out of her family's experience of genocide, became in addition an act of healing, as a result of which she reported that she felt öclean' and that her nightmares and headaches had ceased."
The "she" to whom Sonja Linden is referring is the woman upon whom Remarkable Document's "Juliette" is based. During Juliette's grand denouement, in the play's very last scene, she says that since she succeeded in writing her memoir, she has felt "clean," and that her nightmares and headaches have ceased.
There you have it. Literature cures headaches, night terrors, and bad hygiene.
Why does it do this? Linden has no answers. What's it like to create a cathartic masterpiece? Linden barely bothers to ask. In between the reading of the program notes and the end of Remarkable Document, the idea of "literature as catharsis" undergoes no transformation, no rigorous investigation. Instead, we view scene after scene of Juliette, wondering over the oddities of Western life; Juliette, haunted again and again by the horror she's witnessed; Juliette writing; Juliette failing to write; Juliette scared of writing; Juliette writing again; Juliette failing again; Juliette getting scared again.
Here's a theory about drama: In order for drama to be, you know, dramatic, a play must create an emotional arc. If you twitch away your time onstage, leaping every two minutes from mirth to despair and back again, over and over in precisely the same way, neither the mirth nor the despair will connect meaningfully with an audience. This is what happens in Remarkable Document. Juliette tries to be happy; she cannot. Why? She can't stop reliving the Rwandan nightmare. And the audience can't stop reliving Juliette's reliving of the Rwandan nightmare, because it is reiterated, in increasingly graphic terms, in scene after scene.
And Remarkable Document has so many scenes. Though I neglected to bring my stopwatch to the performance, I would guesstimate that most of the scenes in Remarkable Document clock in at under five minutes. When you consider that this is a play with only one idea to peddle in the first place and when you consider that the characters only ever really have one conversation (two at best) the numbers start getting ugly.
John van Dalen is utterly wasted in this play. His take on Simon is simultaneously genteel, befuddled, and righteous, in that fascinating combination that only Englishmen of a certain breeding can ever attain. Watching Remarkable Document limp across the stage, one looks forward to his monologues: He's got a self-effacing sweetness that makes even Linden's dumbest, most inessential lines appealing, and even entertaining.
There is nothing entertaining about Tara Vodihn. We might as well blame the director: He should know that nobody can get angry, depressed, and tearful with such hellish frequency in a single production without inoculating an audience against all forms of histrionics. By the time she finally explains what happened the day the Hutus came and murdered her family, in what is approximately her one-billionth meltdown of the play, it's hard to care. Especially since she's somehow confused a Rwandan accent with a Japanese one. Seriously. It's like Genocide: The Anime.
Despite the shoddy plot, the indifferent writing, the absence of ideas, and Vodihn's bizarrely Asiatic notion of Rwanda, there are a handful of scenes that almost achieve liftoff. There's the honestly sweet moment when Simon takes Juliette to a poetry reading and Juliette apprehends, for the first time, the power of the English written word. There's the moment when Juliette lights candles for her fallen family members, eulogizing each in turn. It's sickeningly sentimental and over-the-top, but so what? If you're going to get weepy about anything, it might as well be genocide.
Most affecting is the play's last scene. Addressing a conference, Juliette reads an excerpt from her recently-completed memoir, describing Rwanda as a sort of paradise "The Land of a Thousand Hills." As she does so (in a thick Japanese accent), the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo begins playing over the speakers, and the formerly monochromatic set lights up in bright greens and yellows you can see the land she's describing, back-projected against the set. It's a dramatic moment, especially after all the gloom and awfulness, and watching it you begin to get a sense of the story that could have been told here. This could have been a story about the terrible things human beings do to each other; it could have been a story about how beautiful life was before they began doing those things to each other in Rwanda.
Hell, it could even have been a story about the redeeming power of art.
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