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Some of Them Were Our Neighbors

His fair lady from Rwanda (Tazel and Lotorto) (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Juliette Niyrabeza, a sensitive young African living in London, believes Britain is an ideal country — the people are kind, its buses plentiful and she doesn’t have to worry about the neighbors hacking her to pieces with machetes. She is the focus of Sonja Linden’s two-character play, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, and what the playwright lacks in appreciation of marquee width, she makes up for in her understanding of human nature. Her 2003 drama, making its Los Angeles debut at the Colony Theatre, pitilessly explores both the Rwandan massacres of 1994 and the way we struggle to recover from tragedy.

Juliette (Erica Tazel) isa Tutsi refugee who lost nearly all of her family to a marauding band of Hutus, whose blood lust proved that genocide is no European monopoly. Five years later, she is living in London’s far-eastern borough of Barking, subsisting on charity while writing a book she is confident will explain her country’s catastrophe. Having survived one 20th-century disaster, however, she runs smack up against a much older international calamity — the Burned Out British Poet.

Simon (Louis Lotorto), an intellectual coasting through middle-aged dishevelment, has begun teaching writing to expatriates at the local refugee center, while trying to complete a long-overdue novel. He’s supported, he tells us, by a coolly tolerant wife and, to break out of his writing isolation, has taken on the job as literary tutor to the dispossessed exiles.

At first he is mildly embarrassed by his first “customer,” Juliette, who hands him a tattered manuscript written in her native Kinyarwanda. To Simon, she is one of those anonymous foreigners corralled into London’s immigrant corners, made faintly more interesting because she lived through the biggest holocaust since the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia. He blunders through their initial meeting, painfully seeking some common ground, as when he says of Africa, “The nearest I ever got to it was when I spent a few months in India. Backpacking. Of course it wasn’t the same . . . naturally.”

When Juliette gets a friend to translate part of her opus, Simon finds it to be a worrisomely dry, academic work about Rwanda’s socioeconomic history. Soon, though, he rises to the challenge of getting Juliette to confront the horrors of her past by turning to autobiography, and before long he is serving as her editor and typist.

Although from the start Linden’s play displays a bruising honesty about Rwandan society and Western attitudes toward Africa, at times it veers perilously close to banal sentimentality. Whenever Simon moons over Juliette, gnashes his teeth over his wife’s generosity or attempts to play Henry Higgins, we get a sinking feeling that Young Lady From Rwanda is about to fall face first into romantic slush — especially when Simon’s encounters with Juliette, who’s 20-odd years younger, spurs a creative outburst with his own work.

Yet against all expectations Linden pulls back from the predictable and makes this a work about mutual assistance, never leaving in doubt that it is Juliette’s struggle to survive and bear witness that is more important than her mentor’s book deal or brittle marriage. And when Juliette eventually recounts her brush with death, the reminiscences build with a terrible grandeur instead of flashy, eyewitness sensationalism.

“They came to our house in the morning,” she says in the play’s prologue. “Some of them were our neighbors.” It is the neighborliness of the massacres that will haunt theatergoers. Juliette recalls how, after her family has withdrawn to the safety of her house, her father, a doctor, answers a knock on the door. He is relieved to see his next-door neighbor, until this man, a Hutu, says, “Now is the time for all Tutsi cockroaches to die.”

As chilling as this account is, we’re wrong to think we’re off the hook. Toward play’s end, Juliette takes up where her prologue left off, recalling her father’s dismemberment, the shooting of her village’s women and how she lay in a pool of blood that flowed into her ears and nostrils. Her tone of voice is dead, forensic in its descriptions, yet sadly poetic in its litany of hackings and gunshots.

Young Lady From Rwanda is not always easy to watch. Even watching other people watch it is troubling. (On opening night, a noticeable number of empty seats in the Colony Theatre may well have reflected Americans’ innate disinterest in other cultures, especially those of the developing world.) Beyond this, the story itself is not exactly packed with conflict — while I personally was relieved that the play didn’t turn into a love story, its lack of sexual danger (or at least the absence of Simon’s wife) considerably slackens the narrative pace. Juliette and Simon have their tiffs, and there’s a ninth-inning development involving the finding of Juliette’s brother in Uganda, but nothing that threatens to tip over either of the two characters’ lives. The play is based on Linden’s own experiences working with a Rwandan writer, and perhaps her script sticks a little too close to reality when a few firecrackers needed to be tossed in.

More important, though, the work challenges our perspectives as audience members. A two-character play in which both make direct addresses to the house sets up a test — who will a predominately white audience listen to more closely? Juliette, remembering, in her African lilt, a journey from hell; or ironic Simon, who spends afternoons in a shed pretending to write a novel that contains no words with the letter “i”? Linden seems keenly aware of this, and in the Colony’s program notes she complains about Western indifference to Rwanda, going so far as to claim that critics of her title’s length have short attention spans. (Ouch!)

This story of one small country’s unimaginable horror — a horror made worse by the world’s inability to imagine it — is told in the simplest terms, with Linden mostly avoiding the traps of mentor-protégé plays. David Rose’s tight direction steers the evening away from teary gestures, and his production glides across David Potts’ spare set of steps and platforms atmospherically lit by Don Guy. It’s the kind of show that only comes around once a year, a smart blend of history, conversation and acting. Tazel turns in an indelible performance as a woman lost in a century of death and exile, and there is not one false note in the way she discovers the murderous side of men.

Lotorto has a somewhat more difficult time as a character that we’ve disliked from the moment he talked about backpacking in India, and have since dismissed all the more for his impotent hand-wringing. In the end, though, Simon becomes the pages on which Juliette writes her grim journal, and without his encouragement she would be alone in her grief. For that she might welcome him with words borrowed from another memoirist, as she greeted her new diary in an Amsterdam apartment:

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”?

I HAVE BEFORE ME A REMARKABLE DOCUMENT GIVEN TO ME BY A YOUNG LADY FROM RWANDA | By SONJA LINDEN | At the COLONY THEATRE, 555 N. Third St., Burbank | Through September 17 | (818) 558-7000


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