The title of Sonja Linden’s play, “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda,” is the reaction Juliette, the young woman from Rwanda, expects the manuscript she is writing to receive.
Juliette is convinced that anyone who so much as glances through the pages of her manuscript – about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when Tutis like Juliette and her family were slaughtered by machete-wielding Hutus – will be so gobsmacked by the beauty and brilliance of her work that they will immediately call the most important publisher in Great Britain, to inform them that this “most remarkable document” must be published as soon as possible.
Reality – in the form of Simon, a struggling writer who has been hired by a London refugee center to help people who want to try to put their life stories onto paper – does not live up to Juliette’s expectations. For one thing, Simon’s desk has no phone, so he has no way to call publishers to tell them of Juliette’s amazing book.
Not that Simon agrees with Juliette’s assessment of her own work. He tells her that, while very detailed, it’s also very impersonal – a recounting of literal facts, rather than a narrative that will engage the emotions.
Juliette is determined to improve her book, so she agrees to weekly meetings with Simon, even though she is not too sure about his abilities as a writing teacher – especially since Simon is dealing with a severe case of writer’s block.
This description makes “I Have Before Me…” sound as if it is more action-packed than it is. Linden’s work is really a monologue show – even when the two characters share space on stage, most of their words are addressed to the audience instead of each other.
The good thing is that World Stage Theatre Company, which is presenting this play this weekend at the Tulsa PAC, has cast two actors – Los Angeles-based Mecca Marie as Juliette, and Tulsan John Burns as Simon – who are able to invest Linden’s words with very real, finely calibrated feeling, and make these two characters an arresting study in contrasts.
Marie embodies Juliette completely, from what sounded to these ears like an impeccable accent to a physicality that evoked the tug-of-war between caution and curiosity as she tries to navigate her way through the exceedingly strange world of London, England.
It makes scenes such as her attending a poetry reading Simon gives, or lights candles in remembrance of the family members long dead, or finally relives the horrors of April 6-7, 1994, vibrate with deeply felt – if judiciously expressed – emotions. Marie makes you believe every word the very literal Juilette says is unimpeachably true, as she works to evolve from a survivor into someone able to live life again, to grow beyond the “pigeonhole” of “refugee,” and become simply a human being again.
Simon is a more problematic character – he’s more a collection of the most banal of “first world problems” – but Burns makes the most of what he’s given. The boyish excitement Simon shows at the prospect of meeting his first writing “client” is a bit overdone, especially in light of what we learn about Simon as the play unfolds. Burns ultimately wrings a good bit of life out of what could have been simply a wet rag of a fellow.
Kelli McLoud-Shingen’s sensitive direction is aided by Courtney Vaughns’ lighting design, Rich Goss’ set, and the percussive music engineered by Katie Perkins and Paula Scheider.
A talk-back session dealing with the issues and ideas raised by “I Have Before Me…” will be held following the Saturday and Sunday matinee performances, facilitated by Natasha Aruliah, a Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion facilitator based in Vancouver, Canada.
“I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda” continues with performances through Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Tulsa PAC. For tickets: 918-596-7111, tulsapac.com.