Mysteries of Heaven and Earth
‘Our Lady of Kibeho,’ a Katori Hall Drama Set in the 1980s
NYT Critics’ Pick
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, signaturetheatre.org. 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).