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Can you make performance art about genocide? Samedi Detente

Dorothée Munyaneza grew up in Rwanda listening to a popular Saturday morning variety show on the radio called Samedi Detente. When she was 12 years old, in 1994, 800,000 of her fellow Rwandans were killed within 100 days, the fastest genocide in history, she tells us in “Samedi Detente,” her effort two decades later to put something about her experiences on stage.

Over 75 minutes, Munyaneza, the dancer Nadia Beugré and the composer Alain Mahé use music, song and dance to augment Munyaneza’s observations about life before those 100 days, and death during it.  But it’s the Rwandan’s personal reminiscences that have the strongest effect — her escape to the countryside with her family, the dogs everywhere, the chilling encounter at a French roadblock (recounted in the first of the videos below, taken from an earlier production.) In the face of the unfathomable, what seems to hit home the hardest are the small details of her personal horror — her description, for example, of the lice that infested everything.

We are uncertain how to react to the rest of “Samedi Detente.” Is it acceptable to consider it entertaining? Munyaneza has a sweet voice, and Beugre moves well, Mahe’s speaking voice is sonorous, and his music engaging. None of it seems an effort to recreate the radio program of her childhood; little of it is clearly connected to her experiences in 1994. Perhaps these help both the story more palatable both to the theater maker and the theatergoers. Genocide is a hard dish to swallow served by itself.

(It’s interesting to compare “Samedi Detente” with “Our Lady of Kibeho,” a play by Katori Hall that approached the Rwanda massacre obliquely — it is based on a true story about three Catholic schoolgirls in 1981 Rwanda who reported having a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told them of the genocide that would occur 13 years later.)

“Samedi Detente” has one last performance at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, today at 7 p.m. But this is a story that Dorothée Munyaneza surely can’t leave alone, and I suspect — and hope — she will present other iterations of it in the years ahead.

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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.

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