Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dogs of Rwanda Both Personally and Universally Compelling

Sean Christopher Lewis
Cedar Rapids - The people of Rwanda have a very homespun way of dealing with crime and punishment, despite the many brutal atrocities that occurred during the 1994 genocide. They meet, in a large open space, victim and accused, for the Gacaca, literally: "the short grass where we all gather as a village." And then they tell the story. The accused air their misdeeds before the public, who they are, and who they killed, and how. The simple, bold act of speaking the truth out aloud, more than jail sentences or reparations, becomes an important step towards giving closure to this war-torn community. David (Sean Christopher Lewis, who also wrote the piece) knows about this custom, just as he knows first hand about some of the terrible things that happened that spring. He's even written a book about them. But his book hasn't given him the closure he desperately needs, because it doesn't tell the truth, not the real, messy truth about what happened, and he knows it. So he has a story to tell us. His own short grass is a small black box theatre, his court a video camera and a few rows of strangers in chairs. Dogs of Rwanda is a story of guilt, forgiveness, and the healing power of owning your own past. It plays this weekend at CSPS.

Lewis likens David, a thirty-six year old writer carrying around twenty years of guilt, to Sisyphus. "It's a rock, really, forgiveness. It's some pain and hurt that someone else has given us and we've decided to hold on to." David, in his book about his experience in Rwanda, misrepresented the two most important people in his life, and he's been pushing that rock up a hill ever since. One of the people is Mary, the person he's recording the story for. The other is a Tutsi survivor named God's Blessing. We're introduced to him via a crumpled note that reads: "I read your book; quite an accomplishment. I'm only sad about what you left out."

Flash back to 1994. David is sixteen, a simple midwestern boy like any other. He follows Mary to Africa — missionaries, young and in love, holding hands, daydreaming, unaware that the quiet, beautiful land they've landed in is about to explode into tribal violence: "This is gonna be the greatest Spring Break of our lives... and then one morning a body came floating by."

It's a jarring, horrifying image: a couple of American teenagers in the middle of an African Civil War. But they can't just sit there and watch. When they meet God's Blessing, a boy David's age looking for his parents, they befriend him, try to help him, and all three escape with their lives, as well as an amazing story to tell. It's a very human and very uncomfortable story, filled with all the familiar gray areas — compassion and selfishness, cowardice, bravery, and sudden brutality. David, the writer, cleans it up for public consumption, whitewashing it, and in the process steals the guilt — the truth — from his friends. Twenty years later, he returns to Rwanda, still carrying his rock, in an attempt to make amends.

In the process we learn a lot about Rwanada itself, and it's these fascinating but disturbing tidbits of information that make Dogs of Rwanda so compelling. The Canadian soldiers, who, during the crisis, shot the titular dogs — not as an act of cruelty, but in a desperate attempt to keep them from devouring the corpses. The hodgepodge of foreign construction projects that have rapidly modernized the country. The macabre tour guide who makes her living by selling the story of her narrow escape: "come inside and I will show you what they did to us."

There's a lucid practicality to the way the Rwandans approach their situation. Above all, they cannot deny the truth of what happened, because to do so would be to refuse to move forward. David, shocked that the perpetrators of the genocide could be treated so relatively lightly in the Gacaca, asks God's Blessing for an explanation. How can the Hutu be accepted back into civil society, after their wholesale slaughter of the Tutsi? "What else can we do?" God's Blessing asks. "Our country was destroyed and we needed hands to rebuild. And our hands are cut off. Our hands are in the ground. And that is more important than justice."

All of this is delivered in a conversational, unassuming matter — Lewis sits at a table with a glass of water and a book and tells us the story, as if we were his closest friends. This grounds his energy, but only serves to make the story more intense. We don't see him physically embody a character, but a simple vocal adjustment — such as an effective accent, or imitating the sound of a machete chopping through grass, or even the way his voice speeds up as the situation becomes perilous — goes a long way towards creating the setting. The style, casual and intimate, disarms us, while at the same time the carefully planned structure of the story works its magic, creating a very personal, devastating slice of history.

You shouldn't miss Dogs of Rwanda. Not only is it an intriguing story constructed around huge historical events, but it also has profound things to say about the local, intimate feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and healing. The show plays tonight at CSPS; more information here.

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