"Rwanda' and "Rachel Corrie'

3 minute read
963 rickman alan
This time I really learned something


Agit-prop theater— theater that stimulates emotions for political ends— was very popular in the ’60s. I must admit that when I saw The Performance Group’s Dionysus in '69, I was all set to take my clothes off and march on the dean’s office at Williams College. And its influence has continued: If you’ve seen Les Miz (now at the Walnut Street Theatre), you know how powerful agit-prop theater can be. There’s that moment when Jean Valjean and the students sing One Day More before marching on to the barricades.

But having been manipulated for various causes too often, I’ve grown skeptical of agit-prop theater specifically and leery of politics in drama in general.

To be sure, the world abounds in excruciating political situations— the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for example, or, just a decade ago, the incredible inhumanity of the Rwandan Tutsi-Hutu genocide, in which almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were exterminated. As Linda Loman put it in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Saleman, “attention must be paid.” Two Philadelphia theater companies, InterAct and People’s Light and Theatre Company, have taken on the challenge of bringing these difficult stories to the stage, and both should be commended for the effort.

In conjunction with its current fine production of a new play, House Divided, InterAct Theatre presented a two-day series of play readings and discussion groups about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on June 7 and 8, 2008. I caught the reading of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, about an idealistic young American who was mowed down by an Israeli bulldozer while she stood in front of a Palestinian home. Directed by John Bellomo and featuring Julianna Zinkel, the one-woman piece is an adaptation by Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman of Rachel Corrie’s diary and e-mails. It’s a powerful work about just one of the endless and seemingly senseless tragedies of this conflict. Kudos to InterAct and Seth Rozin for raising questions and issues that are difficult and uncomfortable.

A Rwanda survivor in London

People’s Light and Theatre is taking a different approach to political conflict in I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given To Me By A Young Lady From Rwanda. This fictional work by Sonja Linden chronicles the effort of a Rwandan survivor to write a book about the 1994 genocide. Struggling with the project, Juliette seeks help from Simon, a novelist and writing instructor at a London refugee center. Starkly directed by David Bradley and elegantly acted by Miriam Hyman and David Ingram, the play’s focus is detached from the absolute horror of Rwanda. Instead we see the impact on a survivor as she tries to put her life back together in a new country.

The play was based on personal accounts heard by the playwright at a refugee center. This distancing helped me to relate to the Rwandan slaughter— which, by any definition, is humanly inconceivable.

The actors needed more

Of the two, Rachel Corrie worked better for me as a piece of theater. As a single person’s account, the words sufficed for me. With A Young Lady from Rwanda, I found the set— two irregular overlapping platforms, a curved cyclorama with spare projections and one oblong stool– just too limiting. I found myself wanting more for the actors to work with.

But in both cases I’m grateful to InterAct and People’s Light for challenging my assumptions and broadening my understanding of world events. Attention has been paid.

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