Twelve years ago, in a three-month paroxysm, Rwanda’s Hutus systematically turned on their Tutsi neighbors. With guns, machetes, and clubs they killed at least 800,000 people while the rest of the world stood by, unwilling to intercede. It’s a history that was brought to agonizing cinematic life in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda and the new Shooting Dogs, and one that is still seeking resolution.
While you don’t need to see either film to understand what’s going on in playwright Steve Waters’ World Music, it wouldn’t hurt. Waters doesn’t cover the same ground, choosing instead to focus on what happened before — how European colonization set the stage — and what might have happened after in Europe, as politicians struggled to respond. In World Music, “Irundi” stands in for Rwanda and Burundi, and the people are “Muntu” and “Kanga” instead of “Hutu” and “Tutsi.”
Their story, and a plea for Western aid, is brought to Brussels by Geoff Fallon, a passionate British member of the European Parliament, and his Irundian friend, Jean Kiyabe — which is where things start to get slippery. Who are the victims and who are the collaborators? And how hard will Geoff push? It’s the usual sort of thought-provoking TheatreFIRST fare, this time featuring the company’s artistic director Clive Chafer as the protagonist.
The big treat is the opportunity to see L. Peter Callender close up; usually he’s part of a big cast of Shakespeareans out at the Bruns. His Jean begins humble and grateful, but shows himself as someone very different over the course of the play — because of the play’s jumbled use of time, it’s like seeing a character’s journey in reverse. Having him speak to the parliament in the first act also gets the European imperialist guilt trip out of the way right off. “We call you birds, Europeans,” he rails, “people who fly.” Fly in with big plans and big talk; fly out when things gets tough.
The big talk in this case comes from Geoff (played as a world-weary adult by Chafer and in flashback as an idealistic kid by Alex Klein); superpolished apparatchiks Alan (Garth Petal, who has perfected a corporate stiffness); and Paulette (a crisp Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Adult Geoff is written as a renegade — but one who really might be wrong, contrary to the convention that the hero is always eventually vindicated. Chafer’s Geoff is rumpled, sincere, and terribly awkward; he’s a great fan of making people talk about horrible things in the hope the catharsis will help (nope). Klein’s Geoff is all those things and clueless to boot. He gets more to do here than in his other role as the adult Geoff’s son Tim, apparently brought in to show what a muddle Geoff made of family life. And then there are the Irundi women Geoff meets at either end of his journey — the silent and shy Odette (a sweet Ashleyrose Gilham) and the anything but silent and shy Florence (Shakira Patrice DeAbreu, a knockout in her second-act meltdown). Both have suffered because of the tension between Muntu and Kanga, but don’t assume you know how.
There’s powerful stuff going on, but it’s obscured by the awkward “memory play” construction. The play starts out choppy, making the opening too much about the mechanics of getting people on- and offstage. It’s also overwritten; things are spelled out or shown that would be more effective if they were hinted at or cut altogether. For example, the first act’s penultimate scene would end the act perfectly — but instead there’s another scene where something happens that it would make just as much sense to reference briefly in the second act. That said, the play’s language is engaging (“We sit so high in this castle we can’t smell the burning”), the acting is excellent, and the questions all too germane as we respond — or don’t — to a similar horror in Darfur.