Remarkable delivery saves play from first-time jitters

By Ethan Stanislawski

In contemporary American society, the word “Rwanda” is not associated as much with the country in East Africa, but instead with the mass murder of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in April 1994 that shook up the world’s idea of foreign intervention and the U.N.’s role in world peacekeeping. What no one seems to mention when they talk about Rwanda, however, is the individual lives of those killed. With I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given to Me by A Young Lady from Rwanda, first-time playwright Sonja Linden tries to correct the lack of human connection with the victims of this horrific act. While the strains of being a first-time playwright are sometimes painfully apparent, her success in both humanizing the lives of the victims and connecting the tragedy to the lives of placid Westerners redeems all the play’s flaws, resulting in a remarkable work of human drama.

The plot of Young Lady from Rwanda centers around Juliette (Yetide Badaki), a young Rwandan survivor living in a refugee hostel in England with no source of income and with almost no food nor time to sleep. What drives Juliette forward is her work on her book about the Rwandan genocide, which is heavily researched and has a detached writing style. Her only source of genuine support is from Simon (Lance Stuart Baker), a clumsy, washed-up, academic poet with stains on his trousers and patches on the elbows of his jacket. Simon helps immigrants with their writing, and, despite a variety of botched first impressions and unfulfilled expectations, he develops an attachment to Juliette’s writing and fiery personality. As their relationship develops, both Simon and Juliette grow as writers and human beings.

While the design elements of the play are rather unimpressive, the performances by the two actors shine. Badaki captures the struggle of Juliette, who is caught up both in her desire to move on with her life and a deep pain that still lingers from her past. At various times, she is torn between continuing her writing and living a self-sufficient life, but no matter what her current goals are, she pursues them with a restless energy and not-so-subtle desperation that stand out both in character development and acting performance.

Baker continues to develop the sense of intellectual detachment from reality he has worked on so gracefully at the Court Theatre in recent years. He plays a character caught in an intellectual world he finds far too predictable and dull and, thus, when someone as energetic as Juliette appears in his life, he progresses with remarkable fluidity to a fascination with her that is as believable as it is irrational. Baker and Badaki have remarkable chemistry, and both feed off each other’s vigor quite well. Their chemistry reaches its climax when Simon carelessly chastises Juliette for disrespecting him, and the subsequent detailed description of her past sends chills up both Simon’s and the audience’s spine.

The only thing keeping Young Lady of Rwanda from being a flat-out success is Linden’s inexperience as a playwright. With just two characters, Linden often resorts to soliloquy to get the play’s back story, but, as with just about every contemporary attempt at soliloquy, Linden struggles to express any subtlety in her characters’ motivations. Furthermore, she has a hard time mixing monologue with dialogue to construct a well paced play, so the play sometimes lags. It’s not enough to annoy the audience, but it’s enough to hold back what would otherwise be a masterful production.

What Linden doesn’t struggle with, however, is developing real, dynamic characters who are fascinating in very different ways. In such a character-driven play, the acting is absolutely essential, and the delivery in this production is immensely capable of capturing their characters’ nuances. Comparisons to Hotel Rwanda and We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families will certainly be made, but don’t be inclined to lump them together. Young Lady From Rwanda is a uniquely theatrical work of literature, driven by the personal lives of its characters, both Rwandan and European, and by the horrors of genocide.