PLAY/ground: Playwright Micro-Interview 4 of 4

Sense of an Ending
by Ken Urban
directed by Shirley Jo Finney
Sunday, December 12, 2010 at 2pm
Five years after the Rwandan genocide, an African-American journalist travels to Kigali to interview two Catholic nuns set to stand trail for crimes against humanity; the first trial of its kind.  The focus of his investigation shifts when he meets a survivor and and has to redefine his understanding of  the nature of man’s inhumanity, while an entire people struggles to redefine itself.

BOSTON COURT:  Sense of an Ending is set five years after the Rwandan Genocide, an event that has inspired books, films, and now, a play.  What was your unique access point into this subject and why did it strike you as particularly theatrical?

KEN URBAN:  When I started this play, back in 2002, the genocide was less widely discussed in the United States than it is now. But what started my interest was reading Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book We Wish To Inform You…. It really shook me to the core. Not to date myself, but I was in college when the genocide happened, and I knew nothing about it. I was politically active, but in all that “identity politics” stuff that you care about when you’re in school. After I finished Philip’s book that’s when I first started thinking about the possibility of writing about it. But it was a short piece in a 2001 issue of The Economist about two Catholic nuns about to stand trial for their roles in the genocide that gave me the push. As a former Catholic, I have tried to avoid writing about that stuff. But usually when you try to run away from something, it’s best to just confront it head on. Initially, the play stayed true to the actual details of the case. But I found that it just stifled the writing. Documentary theatre is not really my thing. Those nuns were clearly guilty and that didn’t leave me anywhere to go.  It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally found my way into the play proper. There were probably about 20 books and an endless stack of articles on my desk about the genocide. But I finally put that all away and forgot about staying to true to the facts. What I would do instead was watch an interview with one of the survivors. She had her legs and arms chopped off by the Hutu Power militias (the interahamwe) in a church outside of Kigali, but somehow she managed to survive, staying quiet among the corpses so the soldiers thought she was dead. They’d come back each day to check that there were no survivors. But she tricked them. I say, “Survive,” but she had a look in her eyes. She was no longer there. It was too much for a person to take. I would watch the interview over and over again until I was crying. Sometimes I’d literally make myself sick. (In fact, just thinking about it right now, I find myself becoming upset.) When I was in that state, I would start writing. I wanted to put myself in that place so I could write honestly.  One night, in my sleep, I began screaming at the top of my lungs. My partner had to grab me to wake me up to get me to stop me yelling. In my dream, I was convinced the interahamwe were in our house, slashing me to bits. The memories of those people had become my memories, even if just for a brief moment. And that’s when I realized that’s what my play could do: it could give us memories of an event we didn’t undergo in order for us to understand. That’s what theatre does. We can be swept up in someone else’s world. And that’s what happens at one point in the play. Charles, the American journalist, becomes one of the survivors. Not literally. But the survivor’s memories become his. And he understands not with his mind, but in his skin, in his very bones. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that writing this play has taken a real toll on me. When it won the Weissberger Playwriting Award in 2009, I can’t tell you how validated I felt. Though, of course, shortly after winning the Award, I threw the play away and rewrote it again from page one. But the affirmation from people like John Guare and Chay Yew, and theatres like the Huntington and Williamstown, it gave me the strength to know that this was a play worth getting right, and to shut out all the voices in my head that told me I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) write it.

PLAY/ground is free an open to the public.  To make reservations for this play,  or any of the others in the festival, call 626-683-6883 ext. 206.


One response to “PLAY/ground: Playwright Micro-Interview 4 of 4

  1. Elizabeth Logun

    Really excellent piece here. Thank you. Wish I’d seen the play.


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