Two people, two very different despairs.
One despair is the horrific result of a society's failure, the other the more mundane upshot of personal failure. For the desperate, though, despair has no levels - it just hurts.
From such scenarios, theater evolves. The oddly titled
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda
, which opened this weekend at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, traces the coming together of two lives: a young woman literally stranded in the world after watching the slaughter of her family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and a writing coach - a failed novelist and sometime-poet who must force his student through her wall of pain so she can tell her story.
"The challenge of these two stories is, you can't equate them," says director David Bradley, the former associate artistic director for People's Light and now a member of its resident ensemble of theater artists. "You have to think of them as weaving together through the play, a sort of counterpoint.
"The exchange between the two is the point - this woman who survives an atrocity and this struggling poet. Stories like this exist together and inform each other in order for the world to work."
Sonja Linden's play is set in London, where it was first performed and was launched on national tour in 2004; it also was adapted by the BBC's World Service as a radio drama. Linden wrote from experience; she molded a job as writer in residence at Britain's Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims Torture, where she worked with young Rwandan refugees, using writing as a therapeutic tool, for seven years beginning in 1997.
The play is as much about the power of writing - to move the reader and to heal the writer - as it is about the atrocity, or the relationship between the woman and her writing coach.
During Linden's tenure at the refugee foundation, one woman struggled to tell her personal story for more than two years, starting to write at 5 a.m. and often tearing up the previous day's work. She talked to Linden about the memoir's ability to take the pain "away from my heart." Linden writes in a playwright's introduction to
that the woman's healing "was done at enormous cost, since it meant confronting and expressing with full force the negative emotions that overwhelmed her in the years following the genocide."
From this and other encounters, Linden put together her two-hander, the theater term for a two-character play. Throughout
, Linden negotiates the delicate balance between the story of Juliette, who witnessed her family's murders and escaped by fate's quirk, and the burned-out Simon, the man she looks to for help in publishing her history.
But Juliette's is not a personal history - not at first. She has written an academic account of her country's descent into living hell over several months in 1994, when extremists among the nation's majority Hutus led an orchestrated campaign to kill Rwanda's Tutsis and moderate Hutus. An estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered - their murderers commonly called them "cockroaches"; machetes were their weapons of choice - and millions became refugees in the aftermath.
Juliette's work is written so far in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language. But she is determined to write in English in order to make people outside Rwanda see what happened there. Simon may be on the washed-up side of literary respectability, but he has all the right instincts: He knows that a dispassionate account won't suffice, that a personal history will say volumes more than an index of facts and figures.
Linden could have exploited the characters' darker moments, or spelled out the ways in which they benefit each other, but she plots the story sparingly, in mostly simple exchanges that build the characters and allow the audience to discover those subtexts bit by bit. Bradley also chose a spare staging that lets the story speak for itself.
is being performed on a jagged-edged, blond-wood stage designed by Arthur R. Rotch, with small compartments under the flooring in which the play's few props are stored.
Bradley directs casts large and small at People's Light and elsewhere - the larger among them including the Christmastime pantos that have become a People's Light staple. The other day, just before Friday's opening, he talked about taking on a play in which "two characters speak directly to the audience as well as each other, and the audience has immediate access. You know you're in an up-close journey."
That device - having actors relate both in dialogue and directly - "is something theater does that film doesn't do," Bradley says. "It's inherently of the theater, and a kind of invitation to pay attention. I always like making an event in the theater that's different from any other kind of performed fiction."
Bradley, 41, a Philadelphian who recently finished a directing stint at Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis, that state's largest professional house, is also director of
, a theater piece staged at the National Constitution Center. He recently became arts consultant to World Cafe Live in University City.
During the rehearsal, Bradley appeared comfortable to be on home base, fine-tuning the production with actors Miriam Hyman and David Ingram, who have played at People's Light and on many other Philadelphia stages.
At one point, the two broke into a scene late in the play during which, in alternating lines, Juliette recalls her dismal, isolated introduction to this strange Western country and Simon recounts his sexual dysfunction with his wife one night after a reading he has given.
I went up to one man, he was Indian. "Please, can you help me, I have nowhere to sleep. I am coming from a war country." And he said, "What will my wife think if I bring you home?" And I was crying now.
And all I could see was Juliette, with her dangly silver earrings and her shiny pink lips and her perfect coppery-sheen complexion, until I blinked inside my head and made myself return to Maggie. And in that second, as I opened my eyes, I took in the bedside table, with Maggie's face cream, and her reading glasses and her pile of books for marking . . . .
And the Indian man said, "OK, I'll take you back with me." And he did. He was so kind. The next day he took me to New Ham Council and the Council sent me to a place called Hastings. It is by the sea.
. . . and it all packed up. I couldn't do it, just couldn't. And so we just lay there, in the dark, side by side, not saying a word. And the evening vanished . . . .
They put me in this room, in a hotel place. It was very bad, the room, dirty and broken. I had no money, no food vouchers, nothing, and I knew nobody . . . .
You knew the details were different, but the hurt seemed as deep for each.