By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Internationally-aware theater aficionados have an opportunity to see the West Coast premiere of Katori Hall’s new play, “Our Lady of Kibeho,” which The Wall Street Journal proclaimed “the most important play of the year.”
Premiered at New York’s Pershing Square Signature Center in 2012, “Our Lady of Kibeho” is directed locally by Jennifer Eve Thorn, Moxie Theatre’s co-founder and associate artistic director.
The well-performed production takes onlookers to Rwanda in 1981-82 and is based on real events that seemed to presage the coming genocide that killed as many as a million people, mostly members of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. The work fulfills Moxie’s pledge to present plays that need to be seen. It is not without humor, mostly due to the unquenchable spirit of the girls involved.
The setting is a Catholic girls’ school in Kibeho, a small village in Rwanda. Likable and seemingly naïve 17-year-old student Alphonsine Mumureke (Cashae Monya) claims she receives visitations from the Virgin Mary, during which she is told things she couldn’t possibly know. She is mercilessly taunted by the other girls, among them Anathalie Mukamazimpaka (Tyrah Hunter) and Marie-Claire Mukangango (Mallory Johnston).
Punishment is meted out by the skeptical, innately nasty, and possibly somewhat envious Sister Evangelique (Yolanda Franklin). As penance, Alphonsine is assigned to help the also-skeptical Father Tuyishme (Vimel Sephus) daily in his office. When he witnesses a visitation, and as two additional girls receive the Virgin, he comes to believe it is true. A shrine is set up and villagers, having heard of the miracle, begin visiting the school.
Word spreads and the school also receives visits from Bishop Gahmanyi (Antonio T J Johnson) and Vatican investigator Father Flavia (Steve Frehlich). One sits in the dark rooting for the girls until the last, public, miraculous appearance of the Virgin and its vision of the horrific future.
Jocelynn Johnson, Shardae Hayes, Jolize Frank and Brianna Dodson portray additional girls. Other visitors and villagers are played by Durwood Murray, Imahni King-Murillo, Taylor Mumin, John Brooks and Kimberly King.
Divya Murthy Kumar devises gritty scenic design that encompasses the school dorm room, Father Tuyishime’s office, and the school grounds. Excellent support is provided by costume designer Anastasia Pautova, lighting designer Christopher Renda, sound and projection designer Melanie Chen, and prop and special effects designer Angelica Ynfante.
Rwandan accented English is spoken effectively and understandably, and the company standouts are the three visionaries: Monya, Hunter and Johnson, plus their detractor, intensely played by Franklin. Sephus provides a sweet and effective Father Tuyishime.
The 2½-hour unfolding of the play prior to the payoff seems to plod at times, perhaps because Hall’s suspense builds by fits and starts instead of building in a smooth arc. But that’s the nature of reality. Moxie is exceptionally brave to present this important work.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.