The Quantum production of Red Hills is a skillfully realized production of a problematic play about a very compelling and timely subject.
Let’s go backwards through that thought, and start with the compellingness and timeliness of its subject. Red Hills takes its two main characters and its audience to present-day Rwanda, to a remote area on the border with Uganda where, in 1994, the teenaged American David (Scott Parkinson) and Rwandan God’s Blessing (Patrick J. Ssenjovu) were traumatized by the violence of the early days of the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi. A few years later, David worked out his trauma by writing a best-selling memoir about this experience, and in the intervening decades he has become a world-renowned expert on the subject of “forgiveness” and the various forms it takes in the wake of crimes both personal and public. God’s Blessing, having survived the harrowing genocide, now gives tours of Rwanda that showcase the sites memorializing the massacre of his people; as a citizen of a country that has found it necessary to re-incorporate war criminals into society, he has his own hard-won (and deeply personal) experience of coping with unforgivable atrocities. The play’s main interest is in the human need to expiate guilt and to beg and receive forgiveness; it’s also interested in exploring what it takes to forgive someone else’s transgression. This is all really fertile territory for exploration, and to the play’s credit, even though one of its characters is an “expert” in the subject, in the end you are left with more questions than answers about whether forgiveness and the expiation of guilt are ever truly achievable.
Getting to that end, however, requires rather a good deal of patience with playwright Sean Christopher Lewis’s dishonest (and frankly irritating) manipulation of narrative suspense. The play’s action begins when David, having received a letter from God’s Blessing accusing him of having failed to write the truth in his book, travels to Rwanda to find out what, precisely, he had gotten wrong. God’s Blessing meets David at the airport, and it immediately becomes evident that there is something in the two men’s past that they are both not talking about. What also quickly becomes clear is that there is no character-driven reason for them create a verbal black hole around the secret they are keeping from us – after all, David has written a book about the ordeal they experienced together, and God’s Blessing makes a living telling white people about the genocide.
In other words, the only evident reason for them to withhold information from each other is that the playwright needs to withhold information from the audience in order to build suspense and intrigue. Thus what follows is a series of feints and misdirections and red herrings. Among other things, we are encouraged to surmise that God’s Blessing has summoned David to Rwanda to force him to confront and confess some horrific crime David perpetrated and suppressed (David does have to cop to a misdeed, but it’s of a very different magnitude and quality than we are led to expect); we are made to worry that God’s Blessing might be kidnapping David (he isn’t), or that he will reveal to David some past atrocity that David didn’t know about (he doesn’t); and we are given the impression, until nearly the end of the play, that David’s sweetheart Mary (Ava Kepple), who had been with the two boys on the excursion-in-the-past-whose-trauma-forms-the-mystery-at-the-heart-of-the-plot, lives somewhere in Rwanda and could, but won’t, be visited by David on this trip (she doesn’t; in point of fact she’s dead).
Making this pussyfooting all the more galling is that the encounter between the two men is specifically framed – both within the plot and on a metatheatrical level – as an instance of “gacaca,” a kind of local tribunal which has, since the genocide, become the Rwandan version of “truth and reconciliation” commissions. In the play, God’s Blessing tells David they are having their own gacaca, and we, the audience, are expressly cast as the “village” of witnesses to their private tribunal. But a gacaca is a process in which perpetrators and victims confront each other openly and speak of atrocities straightforwardly and candidly; withholding information from the village/audience, as Lewis does to gin up suspense, is anathema to both the spirit and the purpose of these tribunals.
Director Katie Pearl’s sharp production might well convince you to overlook these issues, however. The play is structured as a series of narratives within narratives, shifting back and forth between the present moment in the theater, the reunion in Rwanda, and the original 1994 event that David memorialized in his book, and Pearl handles these shifts in register with precision, clarity, and – frequently – touches of much-needed humor. Metatheatrical framing also works to shape your experience of the play: when you check in at the table outside the Recycling Building on 32nd Street in Lawrenceville, you’re given a choice of attending either a lecture by an award-winning author or a tour of Rwanda, and, depending on your selection, you get either a bit of David’s philosophy, perspective, and background, or God’s Blessing’s. My suspicion is that your impression of whose “journey” this play traces might be influenced by the choice you make at this moment, although having only attended once, it’s hard for me to gauge. (I chose David’s lecture, because the ticket was blue (yes, still smarting from November!), and sent my companion to the red-ticketed Rwanda tour; as far as we can tell, he seemed to have much the same experience of the play that I did. You should read Chris Rawson’s forthcoming review in the PG if you want the impressions of someone who attended twice to get a sense of whether the choice significantly alters your understanding of the story).
At the end of each of their prologues to the play, David and God’s Blessing invite us to travel with them to Rwanda. They yank down the plastic curtains separating the two audiences from the playing space and escort us, with handshakes and greetings, into a large open-air hangar. Inside, the stylized set by Deb O evokes a desolate outback: a vast corrugated steel wall serves as backdrop to a massive concrete platform that has mounds of red sand piled up in front of it; on the platform sit a couple of junked and abandoned vehicles and some banks of grass; another junked car sits half-buried in the sand in front of the platform, with a door and front wheel missing. It’s a landscape that conjures not only the waste and destruction left behind by war, but also the poverty and dispiritedness.
Pearl uses this landscape as an opportunity to dispense with the rules of the real world and heighten the theatricality of the storytelling. It’s a right choice: this is a world that logic has abandoned. So, as their journey begins, God’s Blessing takes David into the countryside in one of the obviously undriveable cars, with a conscripted audience member at the wheel, nodding and shaking his head on cue, and at times, David steps out of the moving car to talk to God’s Blessing or to us. Todd Brown’s lighting design elegantly shifts the action and mood from present to past and from real to memory, and both the corrugated rear wall and the car doors serve as projection screens for Joe Seamans’ haunting projections. The use of projection to bring the absent Mary into the scene is particularly effective – she flickers and wavers in and out of static like a memory that doesn’t want to come fully into focus, helping to underline the gulf of time that separates the present-day men from their younger selves and emphasizing the way events get distorted and fractured in our minds over the years.
Scott Parkinson brings nuance and subtlety to his portrayal of David, who is the more fully fleshed-out character in the play (and, I fear, cause for further dismay – why does the white character seem so much more dimensional than the African character?). And though Lewis gives us less information about God’s Blessing, the marvelous Patrick J. Ssenjovu fills the void with a palpable and moving sense of his character’s loss, of his anguish over past events that continue to eat away at his soul, and of his neverending struggle not only to forgive, but, even more crucially, to be forgiven.