Written by J.T. Rogers
Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Better late than never might well be the watchwords for J.T. Rogers insightful but structurally shortchanged play, The Overwhelming, now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto and presented by Studio 180 Theatre. This fictitious drama, originally produced by Britain's Royal National Theatre in 2006,  details the events leading up to the Rwandan Genocide and ends about where the film Hotel Rwanda begins and, as such, only emphasizes all the more graphically what so many people in the West missed at the time in 1993-94. "Missed" is probably the wrong word here. Couldn't be bothered to think about is perhaps a more accurate description of the period.


Rogers creates dramatic tension in this piece primarily by the use of parallel story lines - the micro personal and the macro political. Associate Professor Jack Exley (David Storch), a recently appointed tenure-track academic from the U.S. arrives in Rwanda with research and publishing deadlines breathing down his neck. He is frustrated in his attempts to make contact with his old college friend, Joseph Gasana (Nigel Shawn Williams), a Rwandan physician now running a pediatric AIDS clinic who has gone missing inexplicably. It is Exley's project to profile Gasana and his clinic as an example of outstanding international grass roots activism. Exley arrives in Kigali with his wife, Linda, and his teenage son, Geoffrey, in tow. Hovering in the margins of the play's dialog is the looming personal danger invoked by the Rwanda Genocide itself in which over 800,000 people perished. The growing danger is emphasized dramatically by way of a fast paced flurry of scenes that include embassy cocktail partys, intermittent expositional soliloquies injected by Dr. Gasana himself, and various cultural forays such as a visit to the local market and an encounter by Geoffrey (totally gratuitous) with a local prostitute.


It is at this point that I breathe a great sigh of relief knowing the play's Toronto production is in the capable hands of Studio 180's artistic director, Joel Greenberg, who states the theatre's mission quite succinctly in the program notes: "To produce socially relevant theatre that provides public discourse and promotes community engagement." In this case, the essence of that mission statement means that the play is only the beginning of a larger discussion, including regular Talkback sessions scheduled for audiences throughout the run of the play featuring leading social justice activists, reps from human rights organizations and NGOs with on the ground experience in that region of Africa who have an overview and understanding of the issues raised in the play that is important to hear in order to put the events of the play in context.


From the opening dialog that careens back and forth as fast as the car driven by Woolsey  (Hardee T. Lineham), the crusty old American ex-pat who is explaining the lay of the land to the egoistic, prima-donna academic, Exley, on their way in from the airport, The Overwhelming moves along at a brisk pace  and never flags as far as keeping our interest is concerned.


The ensemble of actors that Greenberg has assembled (some of whom we have seen in previous Studio 180 productions) is required to rotate in multiple roles and they do so with easy mobility and considerable range. Excellent work coming from DorothyA. Atabong (as Elise Kayitesi and a Rwandan doctor) and Audrey Dwyer (Emiritha, Market Woman and Waitress); Andre Sills is called upon to delineate a UN commander, an embassy attaché, and local police officer which he does with efficiency and dispatch; Sterling Jarvis is the benign then menacing Samuel Mizinga; the very versatile Paul Essiembre gives a crisp delivery as Jean-Claude Buisson,  JanVerbeek and a British Doctor; Mariah Inger plays Linda White-Keeler the breezily bi-lingual wife of Jack Exley with just the right amount of savoir faire for every occasion while her conflicted stepson, Geoffrey, played by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett gives a standout performance as the young teenager who finds himself confused and overwhelmed by the personal as well as the political.


Nigel Shawn Williams playing Joseph Gasana, a waiter, an orderly and a servant respectively, is burdened a bit in his final speech to the audience when (in a kind of feel good final moment as the selfless Dr. Gasana) he proclaims that humanity is good and that the world will survive before he is dragged off to his death. Regardless, Mr. Williams displays once again why he continues to be one of the finest actors on the Canadian stage today.


It should be said here in closing that the multi-racial, multi-lingual ambience of the piece - which is central to the over arching character of this work - builds in no small amount of sympathy for the play notwithstanding the script's dark subject matter.

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