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Opinion Review: in 'red hills,' a guided tour of atrocities

NEW YORK — When the elevator delivers you to the ninth floor of a stately financial district building, you’ll be greeted by glasses of wine, sublime views of the Hudson, elegant photographs of African men and women and several tables displaying Rwandan handicrafts — wood carvings, brightly patterned neckties. This is a launch event for Peace Building Hub, “a new approach that holistically looks at the relationship of war and trauma to forgiveness,” its founder, Dr. David Zosia (a cornfed, deceptively self-effacing Christopher McLinden), tells the audience.

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Come for the woven baskets. Stay for an end to genocide.

In “Red Hills,” a clever, site-responsive play produced by En Garde Arts and directed Katie Pearl, the comfortable precincts of a nonprofit fundraiser are soon pulled away and the audience is thrust into Rwanda itself. Our travel guide, God’s Blessing, was just a boy when David arrived at the Rwandan-Ugandan border as a 16-year-old missionary in the days just before the genocide, a boy who would inspire David’s best-selling memoir “Dogs of Rwanda.” Now it’s 20 years later and God’s Blessing (a layered and charismatic Patrick J. Ssenjovu) thinks it’s time to sort out the facts from the fictions.

“Red Hills” grew out of an earlier play, “Dogs of Rwanda” by American playwright Sean Christopher Lewis, which tells David’s story. Because approaching the genocide — which left hundreds of thousands dead, with no international intervention — and its reverberating trauma from the perspective of one white visitor is limiting, En Garde Arts invited the Ugandan playwright Asiimwe Deborah Kawe to collaborate in writing “Red Hills,” which expands on Lewis’ original, emphasizing God’s Blessing’s experiences.

In the intervening years, God’s Blessing has become a tour operator. He calls his company Guhahamuka. In the Kinyarwanda language it means “to panic or to be traumatized, to be overwhelmed or lose breath because of fear.” He leads David — and us — past a church with grenade holes in the walls and beside piles of red dirt tufted with dry grass. He asks us to stand — or, thankfully, sit, on rows of wooden benches — as witnesses in a “gacaca,” a grass court, as the public tribunals after the 1994 ethnic genocide were known.

As he takes David around the country, first to a location south of Kigali, the capital, and then to the far north, God’s Blessing tells stories that David doesn’t want to hear, stories of their shared past. “You want to tell our stories. You want to make yourself only the hero. I show you real heroes,” God’s Blessing says.

“Red Hills,” beautifully performed by the actors and chillingly accompanied by composer and instrumentalist Farai Malianga and singer Sifiso Mabena, should make its own stories more uncomfortable. It’s an intelligent work of theater and ultimately a reassuring one. There’s no guhahamuka here.

What Pearl’s canny direction and the evocative design can only somewhat disguise is the conventional structure of the piece. We know that David and God’s Blessing will eventually come to a hard-won agreement about what happened in the past, that truth and a kind of reconciliation will be achieved. The problem isn’t that this is a hopeful ending — these characters deserve hope — but that it’s an ending that elides some of the more uncomfortable questions about who gets to own pain, who gets to profit from it, what it means that hate has birthed a tourism industry.

If it indicts and then ultimately forgives David, it never really interrogates the audience about our own privileges and evasions, about sipping sauvignon blanc and admiring the sunset on the river when people are suffering and dying not so very far away. Have we been atrocity tourists, too? Our applause should feel booby-trapped, pin-pulled. Instead those handclaps simply feel earned.

Additional Information:

“Red Hills” runs through July 1 at 101 Greenwich St.; 866-811-4111, engardearts.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

ALEXIS SOLOSKI © 2018 The New York Times

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