For a dramatist to write credibly on the subject of the genocide in Rwanda is a staggering task. It might be possible to write a play that gives audiences a grasp rather than a glimpse of the enormity of the events that took place in that African country in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, Ken Urban’s well-intentioned Sense of an Ending (directed by Adam Fitzgerald for kef Theatrical Productions, in a no-frills black-box staging) is not that play.
The setting is Kigali in the spring of 1999, five years after the massacre of hundreds of Tutsis by rival Hutus in a local church—a striking moment of brutality even amid a prolonged season of violence that saw hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers slaughtered. A New York Times journalist named Charles (Joshua David Robinson) interviews two Hutu nuns, Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms) and Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham), who have been charged with complicity in the bloodshed at the church. They are about to stand trial in a Belgian court. Charles seems convinced of their innocence. But then Tutsi soldier Paul (Hubert Point-Du Jour) brings to Charles’ attention an alleged survivor of the massacre, Dusabi (Danyon Davis), whose testimony calls the nuns’ story into question.
It’s understandable that Urban would use the character of an American journalist to help audiences enter the complicated Rwandan maelstrom, but this also proves to be a disservice to the play. Many scenes consist of Charles’ interviews with the nuns and with Dusabi. This frequently gives Sense of an Ending the feel of a courtroom drama. When alone, Charles voices his impressions of the story he’s covering into a tape recorder—addressing them to his deceased journalist mentor, Dan. It’s a too-obvious way of conveying exposition, and as the story progresses, these taped reveries play increasingly as awkward modern-day soliloquies. Worse, overemphasis on elements of Charles’s backstory (a sour romantic relationship, distress over Dan’s death, a plagiarism charge that has damaged Charles’ professional reputation) detracts from our comprehension of the magnitude of the Rwandan “front story.” As Humphrey Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca might put it, the troubles of Charles don’t amount to “a hill of beans” compared with the horrific Rwandan turmoil.
Interestingly, there is something reminiscent of Bogart’s approach to Rick in the hangdog way Robinson plays Charles. But this performance never quite works. Robinson’s Charles is so bitterly low-key that he comes off as deflated. Faring better are Simms and Ingraham, though their portrayals are mostly predictable. The best performances come from Davis as the twitchy, fidgety Dusabi and from the excellent Point-Du Jour, whose cold-steel eyes seem to provide tiny windows into the full horror of the genocidal chaos.
At one point in the story Charles says that hope is “not a terrible thing to want.” Certainly he’s right. But, at the denouement hour approaches, the need to offer a sense of an ending to the Rwandan madness causes Urban to introduce a scene of reconciliation that seems pat and implausible. Closure that comes so swiftly is suspect at best.