I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda
At Elizabeth Kenan Theater, UNC Campus
Closed March 28
It's not always enough to ask what is a play about. Sometimes you feel you ought to ask what should it be about as well. Such is the case with Sonja Linden's I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, which closed last weekend at PlayMakers Rep on the UNC campus.
A Remarkable Document concerns the Rwandan genocide of 1996. More specifically, it claims to detail a Tutsi survivor's life in that atrocity's aftermath: her exile, in a cheerless gray room of a London refugee center; her memories of family and home, both comforting and horrific; and her attempts to tell the story of her experiences in what is first a distant, academic work, and then a more direct, autobiographical book manuscript.
At the same time, though, Document also concerns her would-be mentor, Simon, a middle-aged poet who seeks some distraction from his failing attempts at novel-writing by taking on a temporary job as a writing instructor working with refugees. It concerns his problematic marriage, his literary insecurities—and his increasing attraction toward his pupil, the less-than-subtly named Juliette.
It does so until we start to wonder what this Document is truly about.
By definition, the survivor's song does not end in the killing fields. To insist that it does, or to imply it's more appropriate if it did, privileges the tales of the dead above the struggles of the living, and puts us in the position of ratifying a certain kind of survivors' guilt. When we do, we take part in the eclipse of the living: valuing their past, while denying them a present or a future.
To its distinct credit, A Remarkable Document gets at this dilemma when Juliette rebels at one point against continuing work on her book: "I need to start my life, I need to live now," she shouts at Simon, "but every time I write, I'm there, I'm there! I want to be here!" Beyond a point, Linden correctly notes, uninterrupted focus on the past serves to merely reinforce and extend its miseries.
And yet. A Remarkable Document spends more time in Simon's meager office—more time at a hipster London poetry reading, for that matter—than it spends giving the stage to a firsthand account of the horrors of the Hutu-led bloodbath that killed an estimated 800,000 people. We spend about as much time listening to Simon recounting a fight with his wife as we do with Juliette as she memorializes the dead in a tender, candlelit ritual.
Yes, she remembers her family in moving prose elsewhere in the play, and a subsequent reunion with a family member is framed in terms both warm and poignant. But when it comes to facing the true, the final darkness, it's hard not to feel that A Remarkable Document shies away, preoccupying itself and us with the daily logistical snags and interpersonal frictions in Juliette and Simon's relationship beyond a useful degree. It well may be that humankind, as T.S. Eliot wrote, cannot bear very much reality. But I had a nagging sense throughout A Remarkable Document that it can surely bear a bit more than this.
Actor Joy Jones' work with director Raelle Myrick-Hodges ably conveys the depth, the wit, the humorously blunt opinions, and the humble stubbornness of the multifaceted Juliette. The overt musicality in Jones' voice was unaffected and refreshing. Somewhat less successful: Garth Petal, who seemed to mug at times as Simon—and who apparently was directed to creepily semi-stalk Juliette out of his office on a couple of occasions early on—a skin-crawling effect that didn't serve the play well.
To be fair, A Remarkable Document would have to be exactly that—most remarkable—in order to keep equal faith with the living and the dead in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. But theater has come some way since the ancient Greeks kept all battles, murders and physical violence out of view. Ultimately, Linden's script chooses life—but it does so to a degree that makes it feel off-center. In this Document, too much remains undocumented when the Rwandan atrocity itself is kept too far offstage.