Doubting Thomases will have to work extra hard to unpack and explain away the events of Our Lady of Kibeho, a world premiere play by Katori Hall (Hurt Village) at Signature Theatre. The author doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting for you…and that’s a good thing. Hall’s brilliant play, a simultaneously straightforward yet clear-eyed presentation of a recent bit of Catholic mysticism, leaves you grasping for answers and straining for connections days after the final blackout.

The play is based on the true story of three Rwandan girls who, in 1982, claimed to see and speak with the Virgin Mary. These “Marian apparitions” have since received Vatican approval. Many view them as a prescient warning about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted in the murder of nearly 1,000,000 people.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck uses the full breadth of the stage to lavishly create the Catholic girls school where the apparitions take place, a cluster of little stucco houses with bright blue doors. They unfold like dollhouses as the scenes require.

The story begins in one such house, the office of the school’s head priest, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera). He’s having a heated discussion with head nun Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford) about one of the students, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor). Alphonsine claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Evangelique thinks she’s a blasphemous liar, but Tuyishime is not so sure. They bicker like they’re in a Rwandan production of Doubt until Tuyishime pulls rank with Sister Evangelique (men always trump women in the church) and decides to handle Alphonsine’s punishment himself.

Yet when the apparitions spread to another girl, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), Evangelique takes matters into her own hands and encourages the school bully, Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango) to go after the two Tutsi visionaries. Marie-Claire whips the mostly Hutu students into a frenzy against them. (Ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, the source of the 1994 genocide, underscores the events of the play.) Amazingly, however, even Marie-Claire succumbs to Mary’s irresistible charm in a first-act finale that is more exciting and frenetic than most musicals on Broadway.

Okafor, Masden, and Kalukango give staggering performances during their trancelike visitations, complete with zombielike prayer, writhing, and speaking in tongues. As the hard-as-nails head nun, Benford champions our disbelief until the author makes her doubt untenable. Even after that, Odera compellingly embodies a far more complicated angst: not wanting to believe, in spite of all the evidence. The prophecy the girls bear is just too terrible to get behind. “Is it so easy to believe visions of violence when they fall from African lips?” Tuyishime incredulously asks Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a visiting emissary from the Vatican.

Flavia has come to investigate the validity of the visions. “I should have been a lawyer,” the professional skeptic muses before embarking on a series of gruesome medical examinations and grueling tests of faith. He’s there to make sure that everything the girls do and say is in compliance with Catholic doctrine, very much like an intellectual property attorney advocating for his brand

It’s only in relation to this proprietary attitude toward faith that the specter of doubt creeps into the play. Alphonsine rejects two central tenets of Catholic belief: the trinity (one God, three persons) and transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ during Holy Communion). Flavia wonders why the blessed mother would choose such an ignorant vessel for her message. In light of that, Bishop Gahamanyi (a distressingly pompous and cynical Brent Jennings) pressures Father Tuyishime to coach her on basic Catholicism, reasoning that if her visions are confirmed by the Vatican, Kibeho stands to cash in big from the flood of pilgrims buying Catholic merchandise.

And flood they do. Under the energetic direction of Michael Greif, a cast of thousands (or so it seems) create a biblical tone during the girls’ public appearances, full of violence and confusion. Greif stages these scenes in the aisle dividing the audience, making us feel like we’re in an immersive DeMille epic. “Nobody wants to see the Bishop,” a member of the rabble shouts as the prelate drones on. “I want to hear the visionaries.” As these fervent masses turn away from the conventional church and toward their new prophets, you can almost sense Edward G. Robinson egging them on from behind.

And like DeMille, Greif offers up plenty of fire and brimstone. Ben Stanton (lights) and Matt Tierney (sound) create an epic onstage storm, including wind blowing through our hair. Projection designer Peter Nigrini flashes terrifying visions of death and destruction across the stage as the girls recite their apocalyptic prophecy.

Committed skeptics will dismiss the whole thing as well-informed intuition. (In an environment steeped in tribal animosity, is it really that remarkable to predict the hills will “run red with blood”?) Yet Hall wisely refuses to let her audience leave the theater wearing a grin of smug satisfaction. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you remember a scene or encounter that calls your version of the truth into question. Our Lady of Kibeho is the rare play that leaves the faithful questioning their faith and the doubtful questioning their doubt.



Written on November 26th, 2014 , Media


Written on November 24th, 2014 , Events, Media, New Productions

Most Memphians probably won’t recognize the name cut into the wall over the door leading to the new Hattiloo Theatre’s smaller black box theater. It’s not one of the corporate donors or lifetime philanthropists whose names tend to appear in such places. Katori Hall is a 33-year-old Craigmont High graduate and an internationally acclaimed playwright, whose provocative work is often set in parts of Memphis that most local theatergoers have only seen at a distance, if at all.

It was a steamy afternoon in June 2010, when I first met Katori Hall at the Little Pie Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. Memphis had invaded New York that summer. Broadway was buzzing with news about Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s Memphis, which had won the Tony for best new musical only a week before. Around the corner, at the Nederlander Theater, Million Dollar Quartet introduced audiences to Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, who shared his spotlight with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Off Broadway, in Manhattan’s Garment District, Sister Myotis’ Bible Camp, a Steve Swift/Voices of the South creation, enjoyed full and appreciative houses at the Abingdon Theatre. And there I was in the middle of it all, having pie with Hall, who didn’t have a play in New York at the moment but was keeping busy. Her play The Mountaintop had just won London’s Olivier Award for best new work, and Hall was gearing up for its 2011 Broadway launch, with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett in leading roles.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t think I would be a playwright,” Hall said, listing school trips to see regional staples like Ballet Memphis’ The Nutcracker and Circuit Playhouse’s production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe among her few brushes with live performance outside of church.

“The unfortunate thing about Memphis is that there wasn’t a lot of new theater being done,” Hall continued. “Most regional theaters need a stamp of approval to say that a play is good, even if the play has nothing to do with that community’s experience.” Hall said she’d love to bring new plays home to workshop, but she didn’t know where she could take them.

When I asked if she knew about the Hattiloo Theatre and its ambitious founding director, Ekundayo Bandele, Hall twisted her face into a mask of skepticism.

“That guy’s not from Memphis. He’s from Brooklyn,” she said, not so much dismissing Bandele as she was dismissing the idea that any New York poser had half a chance in her hometown.

That was then.

In the years since, Bandele’s Hattiloo Theatre has produced The Mountaintop, in conjunction with Circuit Playhouse, and resurrected an infamous Memphis housing project for the landmark production of Hall’s ensemble drama, Hurt Village. When Bandele’s new 10,000-square-foot facility opens its doors in Overton Square later this month, the young playwright’s name will be there, just spitting distance from Circuit Playhouse, where Hall once handed out programs in order to see A Tuna Christmas for free.

“She’s giving back,” says Bandele, thrilled to have Hall participating in such a meaningful way.

Over the years, the Hattiloo’s founding executive director, who grew up splitting time between Brooklyn and North Memphis, has insisted that he doesn’t only want to produce plays that have a preexisting stamp of approval. He doesn’t want the next August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry to fall between the cracks, and he doesn’t want another Katori Hall to graduate high school in Memphis having only been exposed to A Tuna Christmas and other plays that have nothing to do with her experience.

“She is making some serious waves in the theater world, and she’s going to be a writer in residence,” Bandele says of Hall. “In 2015, we’re going to do a play called Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.”

Bandele describes that production as a world premiere, although an earlier version of the show was produced in Chicago.

Set in a Memphis beauty parlor, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is a period drama telling the story of a group of young African-American women during the last days of WWII.

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Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

Time Out says

Posted: Mon Nov 17 2014

Our Lady of Kibeho. Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Katori Hall. Directed by Michael Greif. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

Our Lady of Kibeho: In brief

Katori Hall (Hurt Village) continues her Signature residency with a drama set in rural Rwanda in 1981, where a schoolgirl claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. Upheaval follows. Michael Greif (Rent) directs.

Our Lady of Kibeho: Theater review by Adam Feldman

Faith is contagious at Katori Hall’s thrilling new play, Our Lady of Kibeho.In a remote Rwandan village in 1981, barefoot teenager Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. Her peers at school, including the domineering Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), are skeptical—it doesn’t help that Alphonsine is Tutsi, whereas the others are mostly Hutu—as are the kindly Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) and the perpetually cross Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). But a second girl, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), soon shares Alphonsine’s holy vision and then a third girl, and word of their prophecy starts reaching their town. Are they liars or hysterics? Are they witches or possessed? Or could they be telling a truth that no one, including the variously vested interests of the Church, wants to hear?

Like Hall’s Hurt Village, Our Lady of Kibeho is unabashedly wide in scale and traditional in approach (though it veers in surprising directions). In a welcome change from the stingy dramatic economy of many new plays, this one wants to wow you, and it does. There are 15 very fine actors in Michael Greif’s sterling production at the Signature and moments of wonderful stagecraft, including a breathtaking Act I finale. (The second act draws gasps of its own, notably when a world-wearied Vatican investigator, played by the invaluable T. Ryder Smith, interrogates the girls.) At times, Our Lady of Kibeho suggests an inside-out version of The Crucible, and like Arthur Miller’s classic, it resounds beyond its own plot; questions of poverty, sexism and interethnic tension echo throughout the story. Hall’s passionate play renews belief in what theater can do: It awakens you into a trance.—Theater review by Adam Feldman

THE BOTTOM LINE Hall casts light on what we may not choose to see


Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

A story of faith and doubt after the Virgin Mary appears to a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls.




New York

Christianity is the great blind spot of American theater. Most Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of heaven and hell—but in most American plays, these beliefs are treated either as proofs of invincible ignorance or as signs of black-hearted villainy. It says everything about the gap between who we are in life and how we look onstage that the best-known shows of the past decade in which religious believers of any sort figured prominently were “The Book of Mormon” and “Doubt.” So it is stop-press news that the most important new play of the year to date, Katori Hall’s “Our Lady of Kibeho,” not only tells the story of a modern miracle but dares to suggest that it might really have happened.

Actually, it’s not quite right to say that “Our Lady of Kibeho” is about a miracle. Rather, its subject is what is known to theologians as an “apparition.” In 1981 and 1982, three Rwandan schoolgirls, all of them devout Catholics, claimed to have seen and heard the Virgin Mary. Their last apparition was a terrible vision of apocalyptic violence that was later interpreted as a prophecy of the genocidal convulsion in which, a decade later, as many as a million Rwandans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The Catholic Church subsequently investigated these apparitions and declared them in 2001 to be “authentic.”

Our Lady of Kibeho  (Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Center, Through Dec. 7) is the stuff of high drama, and Ms. Hall has used it thrillingly well, shaping the real-life story of the girls of Kibeho (one of whom was later killed in the Kibeho Massacre of 1995) into a tightly written play that places a chokehold on your attention right from the opening line. It’s tempting to say that you can’t go wrong with material like this, but part of what makes “Our Lady of Kibeho” so impressive is that Ms. Hall circumvents all kinds of possible dramaturgical pitfalls along the way. Yes, the play has a political background, one that she sketches with crisp efficiency—but “Our Lady of Kibeho” never turns into a rant. Instead of lecturing us about tribal sectarianism in Africa, Ms. Hall sticks to her story: What did the girls claim to see, and did they see it?

Ms. Hall and Michael Greif, the director, have opted to show the girls’ visions onstage, leaving it to you to decide whether they were fantasies. No spoilers here: I’ll say only that it’s been a long time since any playwright rang down her first-act curtain with a louder bang. Just as surprising, though, is her willingness to work on a large scale. “Our Lady of Kibeho” calls for a cast of 15, huge by present-day standards, and Mr. Greif’s staging, if not quite monumental, is most definitely grand in its theatrical effects (including a climactic crowd scene that makes cunning use of the audience). Much credit goes to Rachel Hauck, one of our best set designers, for constructing a stage-filling Catholic girls’ school in the Rwandan countryside that looks real without stooping to rigidly literal realism.

Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden and Joaquina Kalukango play the three visionaries so convincingly that you’ll soon forget that they are, in fact, seasoned actors: They behave just like giggling schoolgirls who’ve been invaded and tra

nsformed by the supernatural. Owiso Odera, Starla Benford and Brent Jennings are likewise credible as the school’s head priest and nun and the town bishop, the last of whom is properly skeptical of the girls but no less aware of what it might mean were his impoverished diocese to be recognized as the site of a miracle.

The most interesting performance is, not surprisingly, elicited by the most interesting character. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) is an investigative priest dispatched from Rome by the Holy See to determine whether Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie-Claire are anything more than hysterical teenagers. Having exposed a few too many phony miracles for his soul’s good, he has become a doubter in spite of himself: “Belief in the impossible trumps even the power of believing in God, which is in itself quite impossible.” Mr. Smith gets him so right that you’ll be thrilled by the soft-spoken subtlety of his impersonation.

As for the play itself, one keeps waiting for Ms. Hall to lapse into the sniggering condescension with which the enlightened skeptic regards benighted believers—but it never happens. To be sure, one or two of her characterizations are obvious, especially that of the head nun, who smacks a bit too much of the cranky Hollywood-style Mother Superior. Nevertheless, the personalities and experiences of all of the characters, like their faith, are presented with complete seriousness.

So…did it happen? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that. But if you’re a gambler, take a flier on Ms. Hall to nail next year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. I didn’t care for “The Mountaintop,” her last play, but “Our Lady of Kibeho” is the kind of issue-driven, ethnically flavored story that the Pulitzer judges love—and it also happens to be one hell of an exciting show. That’s a miracle all by itself.



Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

Mysteries of Heaven and Earth

‘Our Lady of Kibeho,’ a Katori Hall Drama Set in the 1980s

NYT Critics’ Pick

By  NOV. 16, 2014



A scene from “Our Lady of Kibeho” with, from left, Nneka Okafor, Bowman Wright, Mandi Masden and Starla Benford. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

The teenage girl, a young 17, seems incapable of deception. Her voice rises into a bright squeal when she becomes excited. Her eyes have a limpid clarity that suggests no subterfuge. She is docile and abashed by authority, even though her bubbly nature keeps her long, elegant limbs in constant nervous motion. She doesn’t even wear shoes.

And yet the claims of Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) are outlandish, even in the setting of a Catholic girls school. She says she sees visions of the Virgin Mary, who speaks to her when she is in a trance, filling her spirit with both joy and fear, and telling of events Alphonsine cannot possibly otherwise know.

“Our Lady of Kibeho,” a transfixing new play by Katori Hall that opened on Sunday night at the Signature Theater, explores the turbulent ramifications of Alphonsine’s visions as other girls begin experiencing them, and news of the phenomenon spreads beyond the school into the Rwandan village of the title, in 1981 and 1982. The play has the gripping intensity of a thriller, in part because pricking at the edge of our consciousness throughout is the knowledge of the horror that engulfed the country a little more than a decade after the events in the play take place.


Owiso Odera plays a priest and Nneka Okafor a schoolgirl in “Our Lady of Kibeho.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Hall, the author of “Hurt Village” and “Children of Killers,” about the survivors of the Rwanda genocide, has an assured sense of dramatic pacing, an ability to evoke a foreign culture with vivid specificity, and an unusual affinity for subject matter that blends history and mystery. (“The Mountaintop,” her somewhat hokey Broadway play about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a supernatural element.) The events depicted in “Our Lady of Kibeho” actually took place, although Ms. Hall has taken some license to stoke the dramatic fires.

Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera), the priest who runs the school, and Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), the head nun, try to quash Alphonsine’s excited talk of her visions. They are worried that the school will come under scrutiny, and their fears are eventually realized.

He’s more sympathetic, assuming that Alphonsine is just a devout girl carried away by her enthusiasm, and the heat. While he gives her some light punishment for telling her “tall tales,” he also cannot help asking if, in these supposed visions of hers, the Virgin was “muzungu” — meaning white.

The more stern Sister Evangelique seethes with outrage, and enlists Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), a leader of the girls — partly through her seniority, at 21 — to help quell these blasphemous doings. Sister Evangelique encourages Marie-Claire to pinch Alphonsine when she falls into one of her trances, and later to burn her with a candle if that doesn’t work.

Coloring their reactions to Alphonsine’s claims are the deep-rooted divisions in the culture that, when they crop up in the dialogue, send shivers down the spine. Alphonsine is a Tutsi; Sister Angelique a Hutu. “Tutsis lie,” says one of the girls who follow the lead of Marie-Claire, as they harass Alphonsine. “That’s what my ma said.” Alphonsine’s bitter retort: “Well, maybe that is proof that Hutus lie.”

A scene from Katori Hall’s play about group of Rwandan schoolgirls who see a vision of the Virgin Mary. The show is at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Shortly after this tart exchange, Alphonsine falls into another trance, sliding to her knees and lifting her arms in a gesture suggesting a radiant embrace. Ms. Okafor’s extraordinary transformation, from a defensive schoolgirl one moment to a mute, enraptured figure who almost seems to glow with spiritual radiance, has an arresting authenticity.

As the other girls watch in fascination or fear or scorn — or all three — suddenly one of them, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), also swoons into a trance, to the horror of the others, and the outrage of Marie-Claire in particular. “Come back,” she insists, as Anathalie seems to be transported, neither seeing nor hearing.

“Our Lady of Kibeho” may at first seem to be a study in the contagion of religious mania and its ability to take hold in deeply religious or superstitious cultures. Eventually, a third girl begins seeing visions, and as news of this spreads, the town and eventually the country boil with excitement. But both the play and the production, directed with equal measures of sensitivity and theatrical flair by Michael Greif, favor a sympathetic, not to say credulous, view of the events.

Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), an emissary from the Vatican, arrives to authenticate or discredit the girls as “visionaries.” He is skeptical, or maybe just racist. He finds it unlikely that the Virgin Mary would appear to girls in “the jungle,” as he describes Rwanda, to Father Tuyishime’s seething anger. “There is a saying in our country,” he says proudly. “Rwanda is so beautiful that even God goes on vacation here.” (That’s another moment that chills.)

Father Flavia tests the girls’ knowledge of scripture — apparently the Virgin Mary only appears to A students — and is inclined to be dismissive until suddenly Anathalie begins speaking to him in fluent Italian, referring eerily to events in his own past. (We witness a feat right out of a horror movie that would tend to support the girls’ visitations.)

The acting is across-the-board superb. Ms. Okafor’s gentle-spirited Alphonsine and Ms. Masden’s more starchy Anathalie are delicately etched portraits of girls who are at once young for their age and, as they come under fire, quickly gain emotional maturity. Ms. Kalakungo is also terrific as Marie-Claire, whose antipathy takes a surprising turn. As Sister Evangelique, Ms. Benford brims with righteous fury at what she sees as mere witchcraft, but eventually we watch in sympathy as her own spiritual foundation is shaken; there’s some envy in her anger at the girls. Why them, God, and not her?

Both as written and directed, with special effects by Greg Meeh, “Our Lady of Kibeho” all but affirms the reality of the girls’ experience. But even if, after the play has finished, you return to your comfortable skepticism, as you watch it Ms. Hall’s drama has an eerie fascination. Suspending our disbelief for a while is among the primal pleasures of theatergoing. Here it is thoroughly enjoyable, at least until the girls’ visions turn dark, when it becomes deeply disturbing.


Our Lady of Kibeho

By Katori Hall; directed by Michael Greif; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Matt Tierney; projections by Peter Nigrini; music and music direction by Michael McElroy; special effects design by Greg Meeh; aerial effects design by Paul Rubin; fight director, Rick Sordelet; dialect coach, Dawn-Elin Fraser; production stage manager, Michael McGoff; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Gilbert Medina; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-244-7529, Through Dec. 7. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

WITH: Starla Benford (Sister Evangelique), Niles Fitch (Emmanuel), Brent Jennings (Bishop Gahamanyi), Joaquina Kalukango (Marie-Claire Mukangango), Mandi Masden (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka), Owiso Odera (Father Tuyishime), Nneka Okafor (Alphonsine Mumureke), Stacey Sargeant (a Reporter), T. Ryder Smith (Father Flavia), Bowman Wright (Nkango), and Jade Eshete, Danaya Esperanza, Stacey Sargeant and Angel Uwamahoro (Students) and Kambi Gathesha, Irungu Mutu, Ms. Eshete, Ms. Esperanza, Ms. Sargeant and Ms. Uwamahoro (Villagers).


Written on November 21st, 2014 , Media, Uncategorized
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