Genocide Remembrance From New York to Rwanda

To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsi people in Rwanda, the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust will present a staged reading of actor-writer Jay O. Sanders’ play “Unexplored Interior” on May 11.

It promises to be a striking event in several ways, not least as a creative and technological partnership between the theater world, the museum, and Google + Hangout On Air (a live video conference call) that will make it possible for an audience in Rwanda to watch the play on a giant screen at their newly constructed amphitheater at Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. They will be viewing the New York-based production as it is performed in real time.

Following the two-and-a-half-hour performance featuring 15 actors, the audiences at each location will have a face-to-face discussion about the play, while other global viewers, who can also view the performance — and the audience response in Rwanda — live-streamed on their computers, will also be able to participate in the conversation, using Hangout On Air’s Q & A app. The live audience in New York, including invited guests who have studied, witnessed, and survived genocidal attacks, will participate in the post performance question and answer session.

It’s been a long journey for “Unexplored Interior,” and especially for Sander, who has been working on the play for close to a decade. The son of Quaker social activists, Sander describes a confluence of events that led to his involvement with the crisis in Rwanda, not least seeing the horrifying events unfolding on television in 1994, no one fully explaining it and, worse, nobody responding to it in any meaningful way. “The newscasters kept saying it was complex and tribal and completely beyond our understanding,” he recalls. “And I just didn’t buy it.”

The events in Rwanda never fully left Sander’s consciousness, and on the 10th anniversary of the genocide, “It struck me, I had done nothing about it and I wondered how I can look my son in the eye?” he asked. To educate himself more fully — and commemorate that anniversary — he flew to Africa and began to immerse himself in culture and history. He was determined to expose what had happened and, though he had only written one other play, dramatizing the events was clearly his vehicle.

“Unexplored Interior” started as a one man show, told from the perspective of a peacekeeper, but a few years, much research, and many workshops later at The Public Theater and The Flea, it evolved into its current incarnation. Now the play has 26 characters, including an old Tutsi story-teller serving as an audience guide; a murderous Hutu government official who falls in love with a Tutsi woman; a U.N. peacekeeper haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people he couldn’t save; and a native film student, searching for his lost family and hell-bent on bringing his country’s story to the world.

Each of the characters has a clearly defined view of the events, but the play is not biased, Sander asserts. “The truth may be harsh by it’s never biased.” Last year the play had its first staged reading at the museum on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Sander continues to believe that the atrocities were preventable. “The New York City police force could have gone in and stopped it,” he said. “Most of the killing was not the result of guns, but farm implements. We did not get involved because the people were black, tribal, and viewed as ‘the other.’”

Daniel Neiden, the play’s producer, agrees that if the people of Rwanda “had looked like us, we would have intervened. Encouraging NATO to take action in Kosovo is a perfect example. And if they [the people of Rwanda] had offered us some political or economic advantage, we would have jumped on it, in our own self-interest — if there had been oil involved, the color would most likely not have mattered.”

From the museum’s perspective, presenting Sander’s play is a no-brainer. In addition to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, its mission is to use the Holocaust as a teaching tool and in so doing recognizing and fighting contemporary instances of injustice, oppression and, of course, genocide. “The Holocaust is unique, but that doesn’t make it a sealed book,” said museum director David G. Marwell. “For history to have any meaning there are things people can learn from it or, more to the point, not learn from it.”

“Wherever there are atrocities, we must speak up,” added Holocaust survivor and memoirst Luna Kaufman. “We know what it means to be silent.”

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