Rwandan Rita | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Rwandan Rita 

Sonja Linden's love story about a British poet and an African genocide survivor may seem familiar.

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I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda

Victory Gardens Theater

A proud but culturally insecure young woman. A dried-up, middle-aged male teacher. She comes to him for help achieving her great ambition. He's brought back to life by her spirit.

Willy Russell's Educating Rita, right? Well, yes. But also Sonja Linden's I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda. The two plays' plots are pretty much identical. Only where Rita is a cockney hairdresser who's decided to go for a degree in English literature, the Young Lady--Juliette--is a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, newly arrived in London and trying to finish her book on the catastrophe that destroyed her family and her country.

The difference in scale is breathtaking: Rita's inadequate skill set vs. Juliette's holocaust. The difference in effect, not so much. Rather than draw gravitas from Rwanda's vast trauma, Linden's conceit reduces that trauma to nothing more than a neat little twist--a novel way for her characters to meet cute.

The problem isn't that Linden uses awful events as a backdrop for romance. That's a trope with a long and venerable pedigree. The popular 1955 stage version of The Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, includes a flirtation between Anne and Peter, her fellow fugitive from the Reich. But Anne's puppy love is a direct consequence of confinement; it serves to dramatize both her horrific situation and her longing for normality. It's inextricable, in short, from the historical context.

In Linden's play, history is just backstory. It explains what Juliette's doing in London, how she meets dried-up poet Simon (who's employed with a program that helps refugees acclimate through writing), and why she's an unusually tough nut to crack. It also provides compelling grist for her inevitable cards-on-the-table speech. Yet it has no pertinence to the play's actual subject: Juliette's relationship with Simon. In terms of their dynamic, she might as well be a cockney hairdresser.

At times I wished she were--then maybe Linden would have written about her and Simon with somewhat less earnest deference, yielding more human and interesting results. When Frank, the Simon of Educating Rita, meets his new student he's an utter mess and suffers further under her influence. His marriage, job, and mortality are all very much in play. By contrast Simon has no bad habits--no discernible habits at all, in fact--other than a penchant for squirrelly self-deprecation. His sketchy wife neither appears onstage nor much affects what goes on there, remaining oddly loyal even after she might reasonably suppose he's having an affair. And his career needs only the slightest nudge to jump back on track.

Linden's refusal to put her characters at risk may be rooted in the fact that she herself spent seven years working at London's Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, where she ran the Write to Life Project. Or not. What's clear is the consequence of that refusal: a play that fails to communicate the enormity of the Rwandan genocide on the one hand while failing to tell an engaging love story on the other.

Lance Stuart Baker is a good actor but too young for Simon. Especially early on, the character requires a physical and psychic paunchiness that Baker doesn't manifest. Yetide Badaki is sweet and strong as Juliette, though she never summons the degree of fierceness that might have mitigated some of the script's problems. When director Andrea J. Dymond tries to get some sexual energy going, nothing much happens.

Really, nothing much happens, period. Even with genocide looming over it, this is a small play constructed of little events. Its most significant effects take place inside the minds of its two characters. For that reason, I think Young Lady From Rwanda missed its proper genre. If Linden had written it as a novel, she wouldn't have had to worry about a theater audience's need for action.

When: Through 3/5: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, first-floor main stage, 2257 N. Lincoln

Price: $30-$40

Info: 773-871-3000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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