We gave it a B+
Katori Hall’s fact-based new drama, Our Lady of Kibeho, is an unusual blend of the historical and the devotional, with a forthright, unwinking approach to Roman Catholic theology and beliefs. (This world premiere production runs through Dec. 7 at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre.)
Kibeho centers on three Catholic schoolgirls in rural, pre-massacre Rwanda in 1981: a giggly, somewhat slow-witted Tutsi orphan Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor), a bespectacled Hutu girl Anathalie (Mandi Masden), and older class bully Marie-Clare (Joaquina Kalukango, so remarkable as a Memphis teen at the heart of Hall’s Hurt Village a few seasons ago at this very same theater complex).
Like the children at Fatima or Lourdes, this trinity claims to see visions of the Virgin Mary, who has pressing messages both for the church and the Rwandan president. (Their premonitions prove to foreshadow the country’s 1994 genocide, just as the Fatima visions once prophesized World War II.)
At the outset, only Alphonsine claims encounters with the Holy Mother, and she’s soon subjected to taunting from her classmates (including a rival Hutu tribe) and discipline from the school’s head nun, Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). (”If she thinks that this is the way to get an ‘A’ in catechism…”) But as more girls experience convulsions, with outward signs of otherworldly forces at work (which are cleverly staged by director Michael Greif), even the nun?s skepticism erodes. By the second act, a priest from the Vatican (T. Ryder Smith) descends on Kibeho to examine these homegrown Cassandras—and ultimately confirms their legitimacy.
There are few surprises in this by-the-Good Book narrative, though Hall adds some interesting layers in the dynamics between the rival tribes as well as gender hierarchy in the church; in fact, the prickly relationship between Sister Evangelique and a handsome young priest (Owiso Odera) that Alphonsine finds some solace in recalls a similar one in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning Doubt.
There may, however, be too many layers in the two-and-a-half-hour production. Hall raises some themes in passing (parental pressure, the laxity of priestly celibacy, stolen kisses), only to drop them just as quickly. Still, the playwright has a strikingly earnest approach, and has never been shy about embracing the mystical (an angel plays a key role in her award-winning MLK Jr.-driven breakout, The Mountaintop). She treats her visionaries with clear-eyed matter-of-factness and even nonbelievers may find it hard to reject the testimony of these real-life characters and their expressions of God?s grace. B+