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The tourism of atrocity

InterAct Theatre Company presents Sean Christopher Lewis’s Dogs of Rwanda’

In
2 minute read
Dan Hodge tells a troubling tale. (Photo courtesy of InterAct Theatre Company)
Dan Hodge tells a troubling tale. (Photo courtesy of InterAct Theatre Company)

I imagine a fair criticism of Sean Christopher Lewis's Dogs of Rwanda, given a fine, rolling world-premiere production by InterAct Theatre Company in repertory with How to Use a Knife, would be that Lewis explores the 1994 Rwandan genocide from a white U.S. character's point of view. However, the approach creates a bridge between the 2017 U.S. theater audience and what is, for us, an unfathomable act: the killing of nearly a million Tutsi tribe members, about 70 percent of their population, by their Hutu neighbors. Through the character of David, played convincingly by Dan Hodge in this 70-minute one-man show, we see ourselves.

A charming narrator

David paces the theater before the play starts, setting his simple props, a slim book and an iPad, on a desk placed close to the audience. He slips casually from the typical preshow announcements into his story, starting with a Hawaii trip with his girlfriend to experience a traditional forgiveness ceremony. She's transformed, but his guilt runs too deep to dislodge so easily.

We learn that the native Ohioan journeyed to Uganda in ‘94, a 16-year-old on a spring break mission with his church, taken not out of deep conviction but because he would follow classmate Mary anywhere. Afterward, he wrote a book about their adventures, Letters from the Red Hill, but he has recently received a copy in the mail from a Rwandan named God's Blessing with a note informing him that the book contains "untruths."

Dislodged memories

David recounts journeying back to Uganda to meet God's Blessing again and confront what his book — written as therapy — failed to describe. God's Blessing was also a teen then, escaping violence by fleeing downriver to Uganda. The young missionaries understandably panic when they see bodies floating past, but they can't get a flight out. David and Mary meet God's Blessing and try to help, and what unfolds is horrific — but David blocks out the worst of it, as God's Blessing's tour forces him to confront.

Lewis adds another layer: David records his presentation on the iPad for "someone who couldn't be here," who's identified later. Director Maura Krause stages the revelation well, turning the play's climax upstage so that we see David's face on his screen while his back is to us — which shouldn't work, but does.

Hodge's performance is extraordinarily genuine and personal. He often makes eye contact with individuals in the audience, conversing with us rather than performing. Dogs of Rwanda becomes an immersive and intense experience, a well-crafted play that goes beyond cataloging atrocities to investigate how and why they're committed and how we might somehow, someday, recover from them. In this respect, Dogs of Rwanda makes a great partner piece for How to Use a Knife, which probes the same historic events from different points of view. Together, they're a powerful pair that brings the Rwandan genocide a little closer to our country, which shamefully failed to intervene.

What, When, Where

Dogs of Rwanda. By Sean Christopher Lewis, Maura Krause directed. InterAct Theatre Company. Through June 18, 2017, at the Drake's Proscenium Theatre, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.

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