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Our Lady of Kibeho Review: A Miracle, Before A Massacre

It took me nearly to the end of “Our Lady of Kibeho,” a play by Katori Hall based on a true story about three Catholic schoolgirls in 1981 Rwanda who reported having a vision of the Virgin Mary, before I gave up on it. It was the moment when Alphonsine, one of the visionary schoolgirls, calls out to the villagers

“Join us, join us in prayer. Lift your hands to the sky”

and several members of the audience did so.

Shouldn’t there be a separation between church and stage? There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires this, but there may be something in my constitution – and I suspect the constitution of the average New York theatergoer – that calls for more skeptical/analytical distance than we are allowed in “Our Lady of Kibeho.”

This is too bad, because Hall’s choice of subject is, at least theoretically, fascinating.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Kibeho was a small village that was unknown to the outside world until two events occurred – the report of the Virgin Mary sightings that began in 1981, and the Kibeho Massacre in 1994, part of the Rwandan Genocide that year that in just 100 days resulted in as many as a million people slaughtered, or about a fifth of the nation’s entire population. Some people later linked the vision and the massacre – as does Hall’s play: The Virgin Mary was warning of the coming horror.

“Our Lady of Kibeho” begins after Alphonsine (a luminous Mneka Okafor) has already reported seeing the vision of the Virgin Mary, and is about to be punished for lying. Sister Evangelique, the no-nonsense head nun at Kibeho College portrayed by Starla Benford, is sending Alphonsine to Father Tuyishime for a beating, but the priest (Owiso Odera) is too kind-hearted to do so.

Soon, Alphonsine’s classmate Anathalie (Mandi Masden) is also having the visions.

What follows is a series of miracles presented to the audience – Anathalie’s father tries to drag his daughter out of the school, but she suddenly is as heavy as a building; a nasty classmate Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango) burns Alphonsine’s arm with a candle but it does not burn – until Marie-Claire too is entranced by the vision….and all three girls levitate in their dorm.

The Kibeho villagers start calling the girls the Trinity, and Rome sends Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) to investigate the veracity of the miracle. When Alphonsine is in the middle of a “rapture,” Father Flavia jabs a huge needle into her sternum, causing her to bleed – a test, we’re told, demanded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She is oblivious to the pain, looking heavenward.

There are hints in this play of the more layered work it could have been. The local bishop (Brent Jennings) seems a little less than saintly – he’s married, for one thing, and he is eager for Rome’s confirmation of the miracle because it will boost tourism as it did in Fatima.

But when the young women start flittering their eyes and beaming heavenward, it recalls the scene of mass hysteria among the young women in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” except this time we are supposed to believe it – indeed, we are given no choice.

Hall has said she wanted to write about the Rwanda genocide through a side door, rather than confront it directly, but, while she offers occasional glimpses into the tribal hostility between the Hutu and the Tutsi, the allusions to the holocaust to come feel tacked on and nearly cheap, an excuse for some fancy stagecraft.

The playwright has a history of using stage effects to try to induce a sense of spiritual wonder. In the work for which she is best known, “The Mountaintop,” Hall climaxed the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive with a contemplation of the cosmos – the motel room breaks apart, and we are presented with a starry set that is meant to be awe-inspiring, accompanied by a fervent monologue. The effect had the perhaps unintended consequence of seeming to try to turn King into a saint, thus paradoxically undermining the non-sectarian accomplishments of this American hero.

I doubt Hall is using her skills as a playwright and her predilection for stage magic to proselytize for a specific religion. But, despite a hardworking, appealing cast, some moving moments and an inventive design team under the direction of Michael Greif, the experience of “Our Lady of Kibeho” was ultimately akin to attending an overlong service at a church to which I don’t belong.

 Our Lady of Kibeho

Katori Hall, Playwright
Michael Greif, Director
Rachel Hauck, Set Designer
Emily Rebholz, Costume Designer
Ben Stanton, Lighting Designer
Matt Tierney, Sound Designer
Peter Nigrini, Projections Designer

Cast:

Starla Benford Sister Evangelique
Jade Eshete Girl 3
Danaya Esperanza Girl 2
Niles Fitch Emmanuel
Kambi Gathesha Villager 1
Brent Jennings Bishop Gahamanyi
Joaquina Kalukango Marie-Clare Mukangango
Mandi Masden Anathalie Mukamazimpaka
Owiso Odera Father Tuyishime
Nneka Okafor Alphonsine Mumureke
Stacey Sargeant Girl 1
T. Ryder Smith Father Flavia
Patrick J. Ssenjovu Villager 2
Angela Uwamahoro Girl 4
Bowman Wright Nkango

Tickets: $25

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission

Our Lady of Kibeho is scheduled to run through December 7, 2014

Update: The play has been extended a week to December 14. The price of tickets rises to $75 for extended shows.

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

3 Responses to Our Lady of Kibeho Review: A Miracle, Before A Massacre

  1. Kathy says:

    My friend and I saw this magnificent play this evening and loved it. The acting was outstanding and the story very moving. Thank you

  2. Nancy says:

    How often as a person of faith have I watched films and theater that assumed lack of belief? Is it so hard when it goes the other way? This review makes me eager to see this play, which dares to bring spirituality into the plot without marginalizing or mocking it.

  3. If I’ve shared my personal view, but done it in a way that makes you want to see the play anyway, then it looks like I’ve done my job fairly well, no?
    But here’s the real question: When you saw those films and theater that assumed a lack of belief, did you like them less because of that? If the answer is yes, then we’re in the same boat

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