William and Mary's latest play examines faith, doubt

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

At the dawn of the 1980s, a young girl living in a Rwandan village tells of seeing the Virgin Mary, who bears a warning of coming genocide, which would later plague the country. The girl, attending a Catholic boarding school, faces incredulity and ridicule from her schoolmates and her community, perhaps unsurprisingly. But when other girls share similar visions and impossible occurrences begin, fear follows and begins to consume the village.

Those events set into motion “Our Lady of Kibeho,” a play by Katori Hall and the latest theatrical endeavor undertaken at the College of William and Mary.

“It is interesting for us because she’s chosen to focus on the past,” said Claire Pamment, the play’s director. “It’s a kind of appropriate piece.”

The play incorporates supernatural elements, but it’s grounded firmly in reality. It’s based on visions reported by real people, officially recognized as authentic by the Catholic Church in 2001, as it prefaces the very real mass slaughter conducted by the Hutu against the Tutsi.

Despite its setting almost four decades in the past, the play is a definitively contemporary work. Written in 2014, the piece uses the past to frame a reflection on where society stands now. It’s a natural selection to complement the college’s ongoing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of African-Americans in residence, a year-long affair meant to reflect on the college’s own history of discrimination.

“The play invites us to listen to those girls,” Pamment said. “The girls were not heard.”

The play conveys how easy it can be to disregard others because you don’t experience what they experience. Sometimes, bad things — even genocide — can happen in the wake of such skepticism.

“I think that’s something that people need to wake up to,” said Danyel Lee, a senior at the college who stars in the play as Marie-Claire.

Hope in the face of despair

Lee had seen some of the college’s past theatrical productions, but “Kibeho” catapulted her desire to take the stage.

“I think this was a really great experience for some of the African-American students on campus, to come and participate,” she said.

Lee added that it’s generating buzz among her friends and fellow students as the 50th anniversary celebration gains momentum.

“It’s drawing a lot of people into the show,” she said. “We’re all very excited. It feels great to be a part of it.”

She emphasized the parallels between the three women in the play and Karen Ely, Lynn Briley and Janet Brown, the trio who began attending William and Mary in 1967 as the school’s first black female undergraduate students and the first black students allowed to live on campus. As the play’s characters face adversity and skepticism while navigating new territory, so did the college’s counterparts.

“It feels really good to celebrate as much as we are,” Lee said.

And it’s certainly meant to be a celebration. For all its heavy themes, “Kibeho” is not meant to be a relentlessly somber journey.

“Although it’s a little dark, there’s a lot of humor,” Pamment said. “It’s an experience for a community sitting together all at the same time.”

Alongside its balance of magic and horror, the play promises a grand sense of scale. The cast speaks several different languages, including Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda. Performers will also grace the stage with African dance, as well as live drumming and singing.

“It’s an epic play,” Pamment said.

That extends to the special effects, which the director wanted to resonate with modern audiences. She recruited the help of Tennessee Dixon, an interactive media artist based in Richmond, who is using videography to bring the apparitions and other supernatural elements, such as characters taking flight, to life.

“She’s using video to capture the magic and the madness, perhaps, of the play,” Pamment said. “I don’t want to give everything away.”

It’s a barrage of experiences and emotions, and that’s exactly what the cast and crew of “Kibeho” intend.

“This is definitely a show where you’ll feel everything,” said Alana Canty-Samuel, a senior who plays one of the production’s other visionary girls. “I want people to be touched by this experience.”

Want to go?

“Our Lady of Kibeho” runs 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5-7 and 2p.m. Oct. 8 at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. A talk back will follow the Oct. 7 performance. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for military and $7 for students. Tickets are available at the Phi Beta Kappa Hall box office, by calling 221-2674 or online at wm.edu/boxoffice .

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette