Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be. Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped. By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see. There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.
The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary. At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda. When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing. Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa. The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.
David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume. Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success. Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being. The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments. This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work. Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him. Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.
There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB. Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide. He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill. While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior. This makes his confession a rather hallow one. How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?
Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction. The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life. Their vision is much murkier this time around. The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time. John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake. The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head. This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.
While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans. It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view. It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018. Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.