Sunday, February 15, 2015

Our Lady of Kibeho

Play #21 - Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall

Katori Hall is one of those playwrights who I have meant to read for a long time, but for whatever reason, I haven't gotten around to it until today. And I am definitely looking forward to reading more. Our Lady of Kibeho is a poetic account of the true story of three girls in Rwanda who had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981 - visions that ultimately foretold of the coming genocide. In this play, the visions start with an orphan outsider, Alphonsine. The other girls find it easy to dismiss until a second girl - Anathalie - also begins to have visions. Father Tuyishime - the head of the school - believes them, but Sister Evangelique does not, and gives the head "mean girl," Marie-Claire, full latitude to pinch and burn the girls in order to prove that they are lying. Still, the visions keep coming, until a climactic moment at the end of the first act when Alphonsine and Anathalie are finally joined by Marie Claire in their visions - their beds fly up into the air and break in half. The second act begins a few months later as a representative from the Vatican (Father Flavia) has arrived to confirm or debunk the girls' claims. He begins by asking the girls questions about catechism, which does trip up Alphonsine, but generally they do fine. Then, when the girls begin having a vision, Father Flavia begins piercing them with a large needle - if their claims were true, they wouldn't feel the pain. And in the moment, they do not. But as we see them covered in bandages in later scenes, the aftermath of the tests is quite painful. Father Flavia remains highly skeptical of the girls' claims, and Father Tuyishime is furious with Flavia's methods, but Bishop Gahamanyi insists that they go along with Flavia, hoping that a verified miracle could turn Kibeho into another Fatima - a hub for pilgrimages. One night, in the dorms, the girls begin to argue, until Anathalie begins to have another vision, and flowers and vines begin to grow up and down the walls. When Father Flavia arrives, Anathalie speaks to him in Italian as the Virgin Mary, and his skepticism is deeply shaken. With the approaching feast of the Assumption, the girls have told the surrounding villages that Mary will appear with an important message, so a huge celebration is planned with people coming from miles around. When Mary arrives, however, the vision is of Mary weeping - she tells them of the impending genocide. In the aftermath, Flavia confirms that the girls' visions are real - even though they are unspeakably dark. Finally, Father Tuyishime tells Alphonsine that he must leave them - as a Tutsi, it is safer for him to flee to Uganda.

The idea that this play is based on a true story is sort of amazing to me. Having been raised Catholic, I am still drawn to fantastic stories like this. All those tales of miracles tend to seem so inaccessible in a church setting. Seeing the real people at the center is exciting and much more moving for me. The weight that these girls carried - and the weight that the country would carry in the coming years - are so vividly portrayed. And Hall's voice as a writer is so cool. I felt like I could hear the rhythm of the speech - even though the people talking would not have been speaking English. And in her stage directions, you get a pretty clear vision of her personal voice - so the difference between the poetry of the dialogue and her own idiosyncratic voice is clear and really fun. I love being told in parentheses that this stern, straight-laced nun is "Totes lying." The beauty and spectacle of the story makes me want to see it, but the tone of the stage directions makes me want to hang out with Katori Hall. 

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