Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sense of an Ending at 59E59 Theaters

Hubert Pont-Du Jour in SENSE OF AN ENDING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
When Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down (allegedly by the very Tutsi rebels with whom he had been planning to sign a peace accord), killing the President and all aboard, it sparked a vengeful reaction by Hutu extremists who seized control of the government and massacred 800,000 Tutsi, hacking many to death with their machetes and burning others alive.  As the Hutus advanced on Kigali, many Tutsi sought sanctuary in the local Catholic church – but to no avail.  The Hutus found them in the church, doused them with the church’s own fuel, and set them ablaze.  Virtually all died.

On the day that President Habyarimana’s plane was downed, Father Neromba, the head of the Catholic church in Kigali and a Hutu himself, had a vision: the Virgin Mary came to him and told him – what?  Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms) and Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham) were Catholic nuns of the Benedictine order at Father Neromba’s church in Kigali and they knew of his miraculous vision.  And they were also Hutu.

Now, five years after the massacre at the church, Father Neromba has disappeared and is being sought on charges that he was complicit in the massacre.  Sister Justina and Sister Alice have been arrested on similar charges and are awaiting transfer to Belgium, where they are to be charged with having provided the Hutus with the fuel with which they burned their Tutsi victims alive.  Predictably, they deny the charges brought against them and hope to convince the world of their innocence, even before they are brought to trial in Belgium.

To that end, they have agreed to meet with Charles (Joshua David Robinson), a reporter for the New York Times whose editor, Kendra, has sent him to Rwanda to get the human interest story that will portray the two sisters’ plight in the most sympathetic light.  Charles would love to be able to bring back such a story for Kendra (she is not only his boss but also his romantic interest), but it is even more important to him that the story he brings back be the truth: Charles, as it turns out, has had a bit of a problem with the truth in the past, having been accused of plagiarism, and his current assignment, if truthfully and successfully completed, could go a long way toward restoring his own reputation.

When Charles arrives in Rwanda, he is met by Paul (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a Tutsi corporal in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the military force that has restored order in Rwanda) who is to be his guide.  Paul is convinced that the sisters are guilty as sin and that their protestations of innocence are a pack of lies and, in support of his position, he produces Dusabi (Danyon Davis), a Tutsi and the sole survivor of the genocidal massacre at the church.

In Sense of an Ending by Kern Urban, currently receiving its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, it is up to Charles to interview the sisters, to listen to Dusabi’s story, and somehow to arrive at the truth of what really transpired at the church.  But the challenge confronting Charles goes much deeper than that:  not only must he determine the nuns’ factual culpability, if any, for the massacre that occurred at the church but he must determine their moral culpability, if any, as well.  Whatever the nuns may have done, should their allegiance to their Catholic faith and to Father Neromba (who, after all, may have been directed in his actions by the Virgin Mary herself) enter into Charles’ moral calculus?  Whatever they may or may not have done, were they ever really in a powerful enough position themselves to do anything else?  If nothing that the nuns did not do but might have done would have made no difference in the final tragic result anyway, should they still be punished?  Is there a greater moral value – one of reconciliation – that transcends questions of guilt or innocence in individual acts?

Sense of an Ending is an exceptionally powerful play, portraying the horrors of war and ethnic rivalries, massacres and genocide, in all their gory details, and it forcefully addresses the importance of determining the factual truth in the face of conflicting Rashomon-like stories.  That alone makes this play well worth seeing.  But it doesn’t do nearly as good a job, I’m afraid, at resolving the deeper moral questions that are brought to the fore, relying instead on papering over real differences in a couple of kumbaya scenes.

The entire cast of five was excellent but I was especially impressed by Hubert Pont-Du Jour and Danyon Davis.  Mr. Pont-Du Jour’s nuanced portrayal of Paul as a Tutsi soldier with a stereotypical view both of Hutus and Americans, who had seen so much of death that it left him futilely longing for any sign of humor in life, was absolutely extraordinary.  In stark contrast to Mr. Pont-DuJour’s coldly controlled portrayal of Paul, Mr. Davis’ portrayal of Dusabi was all fiery intensity and raw emotion.  It all made for a striking contrast and wonderful theater.

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