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Dogs of Rwanda

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 12, 2018

Dan Hodge and Abou Lion Diarra
Photo by Ben Hider

At the beginning of Sean Christopher Lewis's harrowing solo play Dogs of Rwanda, now playing at Urban Stages, David (Dan Hodge) describes a particular custom in Rwanda: Individuals guilty of a crime appear before the villagers and explain what they did, to whom they did it, and why they did what they did. Accountability and eventual clemency can only be affected in the sharing of one's culpability. Summoning the audience as his witnesses and villagers, David declares, "I need to tell you a story."

David has been steeped, to use one of his favorite words, in his story for more than twenty years. He recently published a book about his experiences in Africa, and he has received a note from a Rwandan named God's Blessing, who is a key figure in the account. The note simply reads, "There are untruths here." A good part of the seventy-minute monologue is an attempt to root out and resolve those untruths.

We learn that David had gone to Uganda in 1994 as a Christian missionary. He admits that at sixteen years old his reasons for going were not based on high-minded pious beliefs, but out of puppy love. He was smitten with Mary, a young woman from his church, and for whom he would go to the ends of the earth.

He was not in Africa long when he realized something was terribly, terribly wrong. Dead bodies were floating down the river from Rwanda, which was not far from the missionary village where David and Mary resided. Before he knew it, David, drawn in by Mary and God's Blessing, became an unwitting participant in the Rwandan civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis and an eyewitness to the genocide.

The title of the play refers to the fact that the country's dogs had to be shot and killed because they were feasting on the slain victims. As is no doubt evident, David's chronicle is gripping, violent, and ultimately quite moving, and Hodge gives a riveting performance. As the emotionally traumatized character, Hodge appeals to the audience directly, not to seek our forgiveness for what he may or may not have done, but for us to actively receive his story. Hodge bares the depths of the character's pain effectively, and he convincingly shows that healing occurs in the telling of one's experiences.

Hodge shares the stage with Abou Lion Diarra, a terrific West African musician. Playing a variety of percussion instruments, Diarra provides dramatic and thematic underscoring and punctuates some of the key moments with sound effects from found objects on stage. The accompaniment helps establish mood and setting, but more importantly Diarra serves as a powerful onstage presence and arbiter as he moves in and out of the action.

The play, which is co-directed by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano, is enhanced by its notable design elements. Scenic designer Frank J. Oliva evokes the starkness of an African plain with a dry dirt floor and visual references to the surrounding grasslands. The fa├žade of a thatched hut suggests an African village that David sees as both a refuge and a trap. John Salutz's lighting is particularly evocative, offering a sense of the African sun with a warm orange wash and the puniness of humanity under a dark and vast, star-filled night sky.

A large screen hangs above the stage, and Ryan Belock's projections onto the surrounding walls and screen contribute to the sensory impact. At one point a flock of birds in shadow fly over the scene, and at other times, segments of the text are reprinted above the actor. The effect heightens the feeling that the character cannot escape from his story, and the oppressive words hover above, threatening to crush him under their weight.

I will admit I was a little uneasy about the piece when it began. There is something instinctively off putting about a white male character confronting the psychological torment of the Rwandan genocide. Indeed, African characters are relegated to supporting parts. In the end, though, Dogs of Rwanda shows that cultural scars are not limited by racial or national origins. We are all implicated in historical traumas by the narratives we hear and the stories we receive.

Dogs of Rwanda
Through March 31
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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