In Dogs of Rwanda, now making its Off-Broadway debut at Urban Stages, playwright Sean Christopher Lewis revisits the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the scars they left – both physical and emotional – on a fictitious American writer, who, as a kind of self-help therapy, publishes a book, some 20 years later, about his firsthand experiences as a sixteen-year-old missionary from Ohio to bordering Uganda. When he receives a note from God’s Blessing (a Tutsi youth he knew there) questioning the “untruths” in his account, he returns to the scene to try to gain a new perspective and to heal old wounds. Potently directed by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano, the one-man play offers an intense and unnerving look at man’s inhumanity to man, the lingering personal effects of unimaginable trauma, and ideas on how best to cope in the aftermath by embracing truth and forgiveness.
As the protagonist David, Dan Hodge moves actively around the stage, taking us back and forth in time, in a gripping direct-address monologue that employs us as witnesses to his story, while he recounts the harrowing details, reveals the impact the horrific events had on his personal relationships, and searches for the answers that might enable him to move on from the deep pain and memories that continue to plague him. Leading us masterfully through the changing psychological states of his character, Hodge makes a clear and steady transition from his casually affable introduction of himself to the audience, to the romantic naïveté of a teenager (who signed up for the spring-break trip with the sole purpose of getting closer to Mary, a girl from his church group on whom he had a crush), through his long years of blunted affect and inability to deal with the agony, to the agitation and fear, then full-out terror and rage he felt, and feels again, as he becomes increasingly immersed in his recollections of the atrocities that he and his friends just barely survived.
References to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, the historic Hawaiian forgiveness ritual, the indigenous African ceremony of public admission and accountability for crimes committed (which is not all that dissimilar to the more private Catholic rite of confession, penitence, and absolution), and to the age-old oral tradition of storytelling enrich Lewis’s theme and bring a sense of timeless universality to David’s struggle. The disturbing authenticity of the events described is augmented by a transportive design, with a set by Frank J. Oliver that features a dirt floor and the wall of a thatched hut, telling projections by Ryan Belock and evocative lighting by John Salutz that shift with the moods, places, and times of day, and original live music composed and performed by Ivory Coast native Abou Lion Diarra, with the beat of an African djembe and an assortment of percussion instruments and found objects effectively underscoring the theme and emotions, and providing the sound effects of pounding fists, firing guns, thrown punches, and slashing machetes.
Dogs of Rwanda isn’t easy to watch, but it’s impossible to turn away from the truth of what happened and the riveting production at Urban Stages.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, without intermission.