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I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda by Sonja Linden
February 22 to March 18, 2007
About the play, its author, and the background of the play
New Theatre gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago for all of the following dramaturgical
material on Sonja Linden's I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda. Our special thanks
to Andrea J. Dymond, Literary Manager/Resident Director. Victory Gardens Theatre and to Mark Witteveen.
In 100 terror-filled days from April to July 1994, in the Central African country of Rwanda, Hutu extremists murdered some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, while the United States and the United Nations stood by and watched. Though the killing occurred on a brutal, low-tech level, by machete-wielding military and civilian butchers, this was no random violence, but the result of a well-organized genocidal plan. Despite urgent pleas from the U.N. commander of peacekeeping forces, and horrifying images in the news, the world's only superpower refused to intervene; and the international community followed suit. Years later, Bill Clinton called his failure to act in Rwanda the "greatest regret" of his presidency.
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda is Sonja Linden's fictionalized account of her encounter with Rwandan genocide survivor Lea Chantal. At the time, Chantal had written a testimonial of her entire family's murder; inspired by Schindler's List. Now married with children, she has written a novel. Buffeted by an onslaught of horrifying accounts and images, people can both be shocked and turn numb. Engaged, instead, by a carefully wrought narrative, they can open themselves to the facts.
Linden, whose Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany, says "When I met Lea Chantal, she was radiant because she had finished her memoir. The process of writing had purged her of her nightmares, her headaches, and her suicidal impulses. Once she had come through the terrible process of writing, she wanted to write something fictional, something that lots of people could see. And she wanted to do something creative, which would give her control over the story. Art allows you to experience terrible things and transcend them in the same moment. You also are able to deal with an individual story, which can move you in a way that statistics cannot."
Stalin once said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Mass murderers from Stalin to Hitler to Duvalier to Pol Pot have exploited this to their own ends. But one function of theatre is to transform statistics into tragedy and to open our minds and our hearts to the suffering of others. Playwrights have the ability to shape facts into stories. They seize control of the narrative and attend to questions of craft, maybe even changing the outcome. This is what makes theatre such a powerful means of addressing events that defy belief. Few playwrights think they can stop the violence by penning a play, and most recognize the limits of theatre in the larger social and political context. But some others still hope for change against all odds. Sonja Linden is one of those artists.
A footnote from the Playwright
My challenge as a playwright was to transform this into a piece of theatre that would engage an audience. Humour, remarkably, became an important component to create a sense of balance and draw the audience in. Humour largely drawn from the cultural divide between the Englishman and the young African woman. It is this aspect of the play as well as Juliette's plight and feistiness that audiences have most remarked upon.
Many people have commented on the lengthy title of my play, some thinking it brilliantly arresting, others finding it annoyingly unwieldy - 'it takes up all the answer phone tape at the Box Office', 'it uses up too much space in the listings column', 'it'll frighten audiences away because it has the word Rwanda in it' are some of the criticisms I've received. Whenever I've been challenged in this way, I've been reminded of the response of another author of another work on Rwanda: Philip Gourevitch, called his book: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Like my title, it was a quote from the text, but here the quote was taken from real life - the desperate cry for help from 7 pastors in charge of two thousand terrified Tutsis taking shelter in a church compound. For Gourevitch, impatience with his title seemed symptomatic of the West's indifference to a genocide taking place in a tiny country, off the map, in faraway darkest Africa. Similarly my long title is a deliberate challenge to our short attention span where Rwanda is concerned.
As the daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, I have felt all the more compelled to draw attention to this appalling late chapter in twentieth century history, a chapter that has such strong parallels with the Final Solution.