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One of the the most important plays I’ll watch this year

Tre Ventour reviews the Made In Northampton production Our Lady of Kibeho, staged for the first time in the UK at Royal & Derngate…

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Kibeho College, Rwanda, 1981: a young girl (Gabrielle Brooks) sparks scandal when she claims to have had a vision of Mother Mary informing her of the unthinkable – Rwanda as Hell on Earth. She was mocked by her classmates. Then, another student saw Mary, and then one more.

Written by Katori Hall and directed by James Dacre, featuring music from Michael Henry, Our Lady of Kibeho is a haunting insight, a prelude to the Rwandan Genocide. It’s a play of faith and miracles, and what I believe will be one of the most important plays I watch this year.

Exploring the concept of religion, relationships, God and sisterhood, as well as hallucinations, it follows Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (somewhat). And it’s rare to see religion so aptly depicted, making an equilibrium between intrigue and scepticism on the religious pecking order, making jabs at its archaic (borderline obsolete) rules.

However, it’s also about race-identity politics and history, showing the tension between the Tutsi and Hutu, as that’s what lead to the slaughter of 1994. Here, we see three village girls receive visions from Mother Mary of an incoming doom. In act one, the mild-mannered Tutsi Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), and Hutu deputy Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante) are at logger heads over these “visions” and if they are in fact true, or if the girls are making up lies to cause trouble and to seek attention.

Yet, Our Lady of Kibeho finds its feet in the second half with the arrival of a White man from the Vatican. His job was to see if these visions were honest, but his treatment of Alphonsine (Brooks) was anything but – a White man, one of God (especially) laying his hands on a pretty Black girl, horrifically brutalising her – this could in fact be interpreted as a metaphor for the European presence in Africa. Is it an allegory for Black insurrection against White authority? From 12 Years a Slave to Andrea Levy’s The Long Song to Apartheid, Jim Crow America, Thatcher’s Britain and Windrush Scandal – Brixton Riots, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, New Cross Fire (or massacre, depending on who you talk to) and Unite the Right in Charlottesville.

The relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, the rulers and ruled, the legacies and ideologies that colonialism left behind. Father Flavia (Michael Mears) arriving in Rwanda; perhaps this is a microcosm for the Scramble for Africa following the Berlin Conference of 1884 in the age of New Imperialism – simply arriving, staying for a while and then leaving, very much echoing Paapa Essiedu’s sentiments in the series premiere of BBC’s Black Earth Rising.

In an era of stories that play it too safe (for me), we are now embarking on something special. Representation at the highest level where Black people (women especially) are telling Black stories. Written by a Katori Hall, including a majority black cast. It wasn’t so long ago something like this would be done with white actors in black face. This is what they talked about in BBC’s Black Hollywood: They Gotta Have Us. Representation matters. Seeing this, it was fantastic. It warmed my heart to see people who looked like me not adhering to negative stereotypes of Black people. Images travel. Black people need to tell our stories.

And following Black Panther, we even have a token white man and jokes about colonisation. Those jokes suited the tone of this play, which could well have been a thin-lipped contemporary drama. But it wasn’t, there are laughs to be had and that’s vital when trying to discuss issues as delicate as this. You can’t be too heavy-handed, not in the UK, which isn’t as politically conscious yet (on race and identity politics) as our friends across the Atlantic.

Magic consultant was called in for Our Lady of Kibeho

The girls’ visions show how divided Rwanda is. Many in Britain talk about the divisions between the Africans and the West Indians, prejudices that go back to the 1950s and 1960s with the Windrush Generation. Yet, within the Caribbean there’s division amongst the nations via island politics and so forth. On the African continent, countries have their differences and within single nations like Rwanda, they have their differences too. Like the Tutsi and Hutu – differences that turned into feud, leading to between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dead Africans in 1994.

Those visions were premonitions of what was to come. They also exposed the opportunistic nature of the Catholic Church, echoing films like Spotlight. Bishop Gahamanyi, played by Leo Wringer, (dressed to kill might I add) wanted to cover it up but soon saw it as a marketing opportunity. And Father Tuyishime even coaches the girls so they can pass Father Favalia’s tests.

Hall’s writing has built a world, giving a sense of not only a nation, but a continent that many audiences may not have been to. She does it so vividly. You’re immersed in the story. You feel their pain and sorrow, through the hatred these factions have each other in a village lusting for faith.

The characters are also excellent – from Gabrielle Brooks to Michelle Asante (fabulous) and Pepter Lunkuse as Marie-Claire (brilliant). There’s a hint of Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974) and Grace Nichols’ poetry in there as well. It’s unapologetically Black – watching these characters as they smile and laugh and frown and shout and fight and rise up in fits of rage and passion, and defiantly oppose Father Favalia – strong in their pride with Mother Africa in their cheeks, quickstepping and singing songs in the view of the red sun, melodies of African speech, cracking jokes and kissing teeth.

Hall makes the audience work for the story. Firstly, making us decide whether we believe the visions and secondly Europe’s role in the degradation of Africa, the Rwandan Genocide being one event in a long line forcing nations like Britain to consider their colonial legacy. Rwanda wasn’t British, it was Belgian. But Zimbabwe was (formerly Rhodesia). So was South Africa, Botswana, Jamaica, India. I could go on. We are fast to condemn Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Yet, Churchill has just as much to answer for when you look at his record in the colonies. Additionally, can we talk about them without talking about King Leopold II of Belgium and the Congolese Genocide?

Europe has a lot to answer for in regards to colonialism and the legacies it left behind in Africa and beyond. We intervene when it suits us. We fund wars when it suits us. We give aid when it suits. But we watched Rwanda burn from behind our television screens and did nothing.

Our Lady of Kibeho is showing at the Royal & Derngate until February 2

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