Before Moxie Theatre’s production of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho even started — as audience members found their seats, and while director, Jennifer Eve Thorn, eyed the room in anxious anticipation — I began worrying. The preshow mood music of drums and rhythmic chanting reminded me of the last time I saw Africa portrayed onstage, when I left the theater fearing I might never wash away the stink of minstrelsy.
You see, I’m a member of a small minority who felt The Book of Mormon accomplished nothing beyond earning millions of dollars by letting white people laugh at the misfortunes of black people in faraway lands. Few agree with me, but at least I’m not totally alone. As I waited for Our Lady of Kibeho to begin, I wondered, is there any way for an American playwright (even a black one) with an Ivy League education and Broadway palmares to speak plainly about genocide to a Southern California audience through the vision of a white director and with American actors copping African accents?
Unlike The Book of Mormon, I laughed plenty during Our Lady of Kibeho. I laughed when Sister Evangelique (Yolanda Franklin) told papal investigator, Father Flavia (Steve Froelich), that none of the young girls in the play could know Italian, but “If only the Italians had colonized us,” she said, with a bitter cynicism that reflects the harsh reality of colonial rule, while at the same time accepting it as an indelible part of Rwandan history. It is a rare joke indeed that must be made because to accept the past with anything other than humor is to be consumed by it.
This is heavy stuff, this trying to decide where the boundaries of exploitation lie. I’m not 100 percent comfortable with it, and I think that’s a good thing. My gut tells me that Our Lady of Kibeho doesn’t try to speak for the victims of genocide in Rwanda, perhaps because it’s impossible to do so. It also doesn’t coopt the emotional value of history to accomplish some ulterior motive, or to get laughs at someone else’s expense. It doesn’t even really pick sides as to genocide, the spectral evil of which lurks always in the background because we all know it happened.
Our Lady of Kibeho is a rarity in a world where racism is easy and honesty’s tough.
To answer my previous question: Amazingly, yes.
Our Lady of Kibeho runs through May 29.