Review by Daniel Dunlow
19 November 2014
The show ended and the lady behind me said to her friend, “Makes you wonder, eh?”
“Our Lady of Kibeho” by Katori Hall, which just opened Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre, does exactly that. It makes you wonder. Centered on 3 young women in Kibeho, Rwanda, in 1981, this play challenges the audience to think in a way that the New York theatre community has not seen in decades.
When Alphonsine Munureke, a student in an all-girls’ Catholic school in Rwanda, begins seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, the school officials quickly dismiss her as engaging in a hoax. Later, they even accuse her of being in a pact with the devil and being a witch. This is until other girls in the school start to have the same visions, prompting the school to call in Catholic clergy from Rome to see if these girls are telling the truth. This conflict lets the audience explore the questions of religion and belief, and in many ways allows us to believe in these visions as much as the girls in the story do.
Via brilliant writing by Katori Hall, the audience takes the girls’ side, knowing that what we have witnessed is true. “You can’t believe the miracle that is staring you in the face,” says the play to the skeptics. The writing is some of the finest that I’ve ever seen because it really only aims to do one thing: to make the audience believe for two and a half hours.
The direction of this play by Michael Greif (known for RENT, Next to Normal, and the currently running If/Then) is light, potent, brave, and perfect. The entire play is staged on ninety-degree angles, except for the moments when the characters see the Virgin Mary, and where Greif brilliantly stages them on diagonals, creating moments of chaos in the school.
The show features sterling performances. This ensemble show features amazing performances by a cast that marries the material in such a way that it becomes as clear to the audience as it is to the actors themselves. Nneka Okafor as Alphonsine Munureke is absolutely brilliant. Her access to a childlike belief is stunning and transformative performance that should not be missed.
The set, lighting, costumes, and projections are all magnificent in setting the play up and surrounding the audience with an immersive experience, but I wanted to singularly applaud two separate creative members for perfection in their work.
Dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser cultivated authentic, native, clear sounds that never once made me question the reality of a character’s moment. Many times dialects in plays can be all over the place, but here Fraser nailed a consistent, specific, and realistic sound from all the members in the company. Dialect coaches can often be over-looked, but Fraser shines. BRAVO!
And last, original music and music direction by Michael McElroy (who played a stunning Tom Collins in Michael Greif’s RENT) were impeccable. If a single aspect of this show made me believe that I, too, could see the Virgin Mary, it was the music. It is authentic in instrument, sound, and tone to that of the setting and enters the ear in a way that transforms perception. This Grammy and Tony Nominee has proved yet again that he sits at the top of the New York music-theatre scene.
This play is mind-bending, transformative, and one of the greatest pieces of theatre to grace the New York stage in a very long time. Go see it and believe for a short time that these children actually saw visions from heaven and let it make you wonder. “The village fool sometimes speaks the truth,” says the play.
Speaking of truth, this is a true story.
"The acting is across-the-board superb."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Playwright Katori Hall came up with an ingenious method for dramatizing a national tragedy in a way that would make it accessible to audiences who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the events. In 'Our Lady of Kibeho,' which was based on real events, the scribe anticipates the 1994 genocide that decimated the population of Rwanda by depicting a 1981 religious miracle that seemed to foretell it. But after pulling off this neat trick, she falls into the trap of the overwritten/underwritten play by dwelling much too long on the miraculous curtain-raiser and avoiding the main event."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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