The Mosaic Theater Company has arrived, and Washington’s dense theatrical geography has a different colored star on the horizon.
Its inaugural production, the world premiere of Unexplored Interior by Jay O. Sanders, marks that first small bit of theatrical rock.
And that rock resounds as a piece of theatrical conscience.
For Unexplored Interior is decidedly not “theatre as entertainment.” You may stand and cheer the performance, giving it a standing ovation and praising its many excellent performances and scenographic wonders; but in your gut you will sit in silence, bowing your wrecked heart at violence near and small, at violence large and far away.
And you will not know how to stop such violence, at the violence perpetrated against you and yours, or at the violence perpetrated by you, or in your name, or with your tax dollars at work.
All that you will know is that such violence, always justified in the mind of the perpetrator, always blessed by the hand of its god, must never happen with your eyes closed tight.
A spectacle-filled epic portraying the horrors of Rwanda’s genocidal civil war between the Tutsi and the Hutu during the 1990s, Unexplored Interior is more docu-drama than theatrical fiction, though plenty of storytelling resides within its complex and layered plots.
All stories and characters, however, serve the work’s anatomy of a genocide, of an ethnic cleansing, its ridding the earth of the perceived oppressors, to take control of the land, of the wheels of power, of the scales of justice.
There is the young Tutsi filmmaker Raymond (Desmond Bing) who, in the safety of a New York City apartment, watches in horror as his Rwanda explodes in death.
There is the NYU professor, Alan (Jeff Allin), who brought Raymond to the Big Apple to study film in the safety of academe; after the professor returns from Rwanda and his witness of slaughter’s aftermath, his emotional health quickly fails him.
There is the professor’s wife, Kate (Erika Rose) who finally goes to Rwanda with Raymond after the tragic death of her husband, only to return home spent and numb.
There is Raymond’s Hutu friend, Alphonse (Freddie Bennett) who is decidedly not a killer but who is nevertheless drawn into his nation’s upheaval; he soon finds himself in circumstances where he must choose between his life or the life of another.
And then there is Mark Twain (John Lescault).
Yes, in Unexplored Interior’s truly fictional plotline, Mark Twain, the legendary American comic storyteller of rowdy school boys and leaping frogs, steps into the story of Romeo Dallaire (also Jeff Allin), the Canadian General who, after a 1993 ceasefire in Rwanda, became the UN’s Force Commander of their peacekeeping efforts.
Twain acts as a sort of Virgil to Dallaire’s Dante as the once proud General now stands traumatized by the horrors he witnessed in Rwanda, horrors he could not prevent though, man of conscience that he was, he tried valiantly to stop.
In one of the play’s most vividly horrifying scenes, Dalliare thinks he sees the still moving body of an infant on a pile of corpses. Retrieving the small child, and now standing atop the mound of human beings, Dalliare realizes that the movement he saw was nothing but swarming maggots within the baby’s body. Twain pleads with Dalliare to put the baby down and move on, but Dilliare cannot. It is a scene truly worthy of one of Hell’s inner circles.
In many ways Dallaire’s story is the story of Unexplored Interior, as his oral accounts, his book Shake Hands with the Devil, as well as the several film documentaries in which he appeared or was involved, provide the basis for the play’s plot.
And Twain is the play’s raison d’etre.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, our most legendary comic story writer became a fierce anti-imperialist after the United States’ involvement in the Philippines in 1898. As a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, Twain wrote many pieces and pamphlets denouncing or exposing imperialism’s horrors, from “The War Prayer,” a satiric piece that highlighted the use of religion to justify violence and slaughter, to King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a documentary play that exposes the atrocities committed by the Belgian Leopold in the Belgium Congo in the name of America’s burgeoning Goodyear rubber industry. The resulting genocide left millions dead.
Ironically, most of Twain’s anti-imperialist writings were not published until after his death; many were not published until 1992.
Mosaic’s Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: the Beginning and End of the Earth) makes no Twain-like accusations against imperialism, however; and it will raise no ire among the vaunted elite.
What the play does do, and does convincingly, is establish Mosaic as a uniquely provocative theatre within the District’s crowded theatrical scene. If “to bear witness” describes the relationship between Unexplored Interior’s content and its audience, then those who attend a performance of this world premiere will forever be marked by that occurrence.
“And it is enough for the poet [and the audience] to be the guilty conscience of his time.” Nobel Prize Poet, Saint-John Perse, 1960.
To be sure, many “Theatres of Conscience” have arisen in Washington’s consumer-driven theatrical culture over the decades, lived their glorious and short lives, before succumbing to the predominantly “happy,” guilt-free mindset that is Washington culture.
We can only hope that with Unexplored Interior we are witnessing the beginning of Mosaic Theatre Company’s long and vital future existence.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Unexplored Interior (This Is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) plays through November 29, 2015, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
John Stolteberg reviews Unexplored Interior (This Is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘In the Moment’: ‘Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth)’ by David Siegel.