On November 28, 1981, 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke was serving lunch to classmates at the Kibeho school for girls in Rwanda. She heard a woman’s soft voice call, “My daughter.”
“Here I am,” Alphonsine replied. She looked up and saw “a very beautiful woman...she was not white or black. She was just...beautiful.” Stunned, Alphonsine knelt down, crossed herself, and asked, “Who are you?”
“Ndi, Hyina Wa Jambo,” the woman said in Kinyarwanda (“I am the Mother of the Word”), adding that she heard Alphonsine’s prayers and wanted her friends “to have faith, because they do not believe strongly enough.”
Kibeho lies in the southernmost and poorest part of Rwanda. In the early 1980s, the Hutu, the country’s largest population, began assaulting the Tutsi people (descendants of the Watusi). Acts of vandalism included mutilating statues of the Virgin Mary at the entrance to towns and cities. Between 1981 and 1989, “The Lady of the Word” appeared many times and to at least seven children at Kibeho. In 1982, the “seers” saw “a river of blood, people killing each other...a tree all in flames.” Many believe the vision anticipated the 100-day genocide of 1994, committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and the Kibeho Massacre of 1995.
Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho creates a manger of belief amid growing violence. The play combines factual history with evidence of things not seen.
The play asks: why Alphonsine? Although known for her gentile spirit and piety, she was “just a dirt-poor girl with no shoes,” abandoned by her father. Once she experiences the vision, she’s hit with counter-truths: she’s a blasphemer; she’s desperate for attention; she’s a Tutsi and wants to show up Hutu classmates; she’s possessed. But she persists, even when they hold a flaming candle under her arm during a trance.
Young Anathale — who utters rosary from the Middle Ages in perfect Italian during a vision — and Marie Claire also persist. And things happen: the sun dances, beds rise.
The “trinity” becomes a threat. How, for example, can Anathale’s father sell bananas if his daughter is a witch? They even threaten Roman Catholicism, since “Marian apparitions” fall outside church doctrine. Much like the “seven stages of dying,” the community must undergo a multi-staged process of acceptance.
Our Lady of Kibeho is many-sided, and Moxie Theatre’s terrific ensemble cast, expertly directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn, excels with each. Every scene has mini-wars of status: Hutu students bicker with the Tutsis; Sister Evangelique and Father Tuyishime clash about how to run the school. And when Father Flavia comes to test the apparitions, rank gets pulled again. Why, he asks, would the Virgin Mary manifest herself “in a jungle”? Then, speaking through Anathalie, the vision asks him why he can’t accept that her “words would fall out of the lips of a little black girl?”
One of the most surprising features of Kibeho and the Moxie production: they don’t preach. They don’t defend or hype the visions and wonders: these just were. Skeptics can plug in their stock denials. While the proof — in Utube videos of Kibeho and at Moxie — come in the eyes of Alphonsine (Cashae Monya), Anathalie (Tyrah Hunter), and Marie Claire (Mallory Johnson), when they burn through the ceiling. Their eyes, and their performances, shine.
Also, the strength they convey with such conviction, as when Monya says with granite resolve: “Truth is not afraid of the machete.” And, in a bit of comedic blasphemy, when Anathalie hoped Father Flavia would have tested them more, so the trinity could skip mass.
Monya, feisty and ardent, gives one of her best performances as Alphonsine (which, given her consistently high-quality work, says a lot). Hunter and Johnson, students at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, are definitely actors to watch.
Moxie has cast sage veteran actors in key roles. Antonio TJ Johnson brings stature and humor to Bishop Gahamanyi, who may be the only married bishop in Catholicism, and who demands that the visions must cease. Vimel Sephus gives Father Tuyishima a gentle wisdom and subtle trepidation. And Yolanda Franklin turns a potentially thankless role into a gem. Sister Evangelique’s a controlling naysayer, eager to squelch alleged signs of faith. In the end she wonders: Why them, Lord? Why not me? — her anguish is as felt as the Trinity’s belief.
One of the production’s best features: the play has the contemporary equivalent of a Greek chorus. Four young women chirp and bicker and mirror the changing tempers of the times. They hassle Alphonsine, and the Hutus taunt the Tutsis — with the harrowing implication of the genocide lurking behind their words. And they hop from one epic teenage emotion to another. Jocelynn Johnston, Shardae Hayes, Jolzie Frank, and Brianna Dodson become the play’s emotional barometer. They have the innocence of a slumber party, until the bed begins to levitate.
Our Lady of Kibeho, by Katori Hall
Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn; cast: Cashae Monya, Tyrah Hunter, Mallory Johnson, Vimel Sephus, Yolanda Franklin, Antonio TJ Johnson, Steve Froehlich, Jocelynn Johnston, Shardae Hayes, Jolize Frank, Brianna Dodson, Durwood Murray, Imahni King-Murillo, Taylor Mumin, John Brooks, Kimberly King; scenic design, Divya Murthy Kumar; costumes, Anastasia Pautova; lighting, Christopher Renda; sound and projections, Melanie Chen
Playing through May 29; Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. 858-598-7620; [email protected]