Sometimes there is a reality so brutal, so outrageous, it defies words. For this, there is theater. Playwright J. T. Rogers looked at the reality of genocide, and created "The Overwhelming," but his efforts are, while noble, significantly underwhelming.
Set in Kigali, Rwanda in April 1994, moments before the Tutsi slaughter of 800,000 fellow Africans in 100 days while the world debated its responsibilities, "The Overwhelming" focuses on one American family's reaction to a local situation into which they have stumbled and cannot comprehend. After all, this is not what was reported on American network television, or in American newspapers. A ceasefire and neat disclaimer that all was well in this tiny divided nation was the information absorbed by Professor Jack Exley, a supposed expert in international relations, played by Sam Robards. Exley was urged to come to Rwanda by his college roommate, Dr. Joseph Gasana, known globally for his humanitarian work, but suspected locally of political transgressions.
Lacking the ability to read between the lines and intuit what hadn't been said, Exley completely misreads all the letters received from his friend, including the one warning him to come alone.
Instead, as if going on a combination Club Med - Adventure Travel -- Do-Gooder vacation, Exley brings his newly acquired, very young, second wife, Linda, played by Linda Powell, who conveniently happens to be African-American, and his estranged son Geoffrey, with promises of an idyllic semester abroad, which will give all of them the inspiration they need to advance their careers, unite their dis-united family, and witness firsthand the natural beauty of Africa.
Questions of trust are quickly put to task, as information regarding Gasana, who has gone missing, becomes impossible to obtain. The naivetï¿½ of the family, despite Exley's credentials, are more striking than the situation, and the "innocent abroad" face of this international expert is hard to accept.
Each member of the family seeks answers from locals whom, we discover, are afraid to talk at best, and untrustworthy at worst The situation intensifies as quickly as an African thunderstorm, and just as violently, as the family finally unites in terror, and life-or-death decisions are ultimately based on love, not political loyalties.
Structurally, "The Overwhelming" is annoying. Rogers makes an attempt at verisimilitude by creating a logical family travel plan and giving the son an excuse for existing on this stage, but just a few lines of justification really don't cut it. Geoffrey simply doesn't fit in, his role is underwritten, and his big stage moment is to watch him grunt as he enjoys the talents of a local Tutsi prostitute.
As for Exley, he is confounding. Not just because he's both dense and naive, but because, as a professor of international politics, the role of Ugly American should be foreign to him. This character doesn't ring true.
Rogers has apparently glossed over such details, claiming that he wanted to focus only on the universalities of the situation and not the genocide, not the individuals. Presumably, while watching the play, our outrage is supposed explode as thoughts of Mogadishu, Darfur, Kurds, Armenians, Jews and every other victim of genocide and ethnic cleansing come to mind.
And while one can't help doing that to some extent, one also cannot detach oneself from the facts of the revolution or the sloppily created characters for a neat two-hour bit of stage entertainment that wants to make a profound statement but turns out to be little more than frantic behavior and a lot of arguing that never gets resolved.
There are no heroes in this play. There are fragmented perceptions of a disaster on the other side of the world. All sides are represented; none is favored; and 13 years later, we are still trying to comprehend what happened. Theater is a great vehicle for reaching out and making statements. The statement here is missing.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"J.T. Rogers packs so much in..., that it takes awhile to realize what heï¿½s left out....that one crucial element: a sense of lives that are real instead of merely representative...as intellectually comprehensive as the play is, it only occasionally acquires the visceral immediacy it should."
New York Times
"It's hard not to admire... it's just as hard not to wish that the play.. was less dense and more illuminating...builds to such a chilling climax, it's not a play you'll forget. But it makes less of an impact than it should."
New York Daily News
"THE 1994 Rwandan genocide.... would seem an overwhelming subject for a play. But J.T. Rogers' "The Overwhelming" handles this daunting topic with a powerful immediacy and theatricality....political theater of the most gripping kind."
New York Post
"Not even the occasional lump of undigested narrative can drown out the convulsive force of "The Overwhelming"
New York Sun
"An eminently worthwhile piece, certain flaws notwithstanding"
"J.T. Rogers' "The Overwhelming" is not easy entertainment. But in this finely tooled production, it makes for enjoyably suspenseful drama while provoking serious thought about American involvement in the internal affairs of foreign nations in a way that's both unsettling and cathartic."