Washington, D.C.: Unexplored Interior is a difficult play to watch. It takes the audience back to 1994, when 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, and the world stood by and did nothing.
“It’s really bearing witness,” says playwright Jay O. Sanders. “It’s saying we can’t forget this happened, but most of all, it’s the positive side to say these people are not the other, these people are us.”
This visceral, disturbing production is mounted by the Mosaic Theater Co., at Washington D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center. It follows the story of Raymond, the Tutsi grandson of a master storyteller who ends up studying film at New York University. He returns to his homeland to chronicle the violence and find out what happened to his family. It is such an emotional look into the hearts and minds of the Rwandan people, as the Hutus wage a brutal, genocidal war against the Tutsi, that it is difficult for the actors themselves to perform.
“When I play characters like this, I make sure the other aspects of my day are nurturing and cleansing,” says Michael Anthony Williams.
He plays Thomas Sibomana, a jailed Hutu government minister and a character based on the real-life former director of Radio Television Libres des Mille Collines. Ferdinand Nahimana, currently in jail in Mali, used the station to broadcast hate messages and incite murder of the Tutsi. Williams’ character is also having an affair with a Tutsi woman, the love of his life, who eventually has to confront the fact that her lover is trying to eradicate her race.
Williams calls his character a psychopath.
“To think that someone could sit back and craft a strategy to enable to kill each other … is downright frightening,” Williams says, shaking his head. “And the way this was all carried out, it was meticulously planned … it wasn’t happenstance. So to think that people wake up in the morning and that’s their goal is extremely frightening.”
“Try not to judge her for making these decisions you feel wouldn’t be normal. They’re in an abnormal situation,” says Shannon Dorsey, who plays Cat-reen Bunyanyezi, the Tutsi woman who loves Williams’ character.
Dorsey says she had questions about the choices her character makes, but she felt that Cat-reen deserved a voice, because it could easily have been a play about Rwanda without any women.
“It was important to be able to see a woman go through these horrors but still have strength and try and see if there’s any dignity in there,” Dorsey explains, “and try to bring attention to how people have to survive, how they have to come together and do different things when it’s wartime. … It was really important for people to … remember that women did exist and they suffered greatly.”
Playwright Sanders has spent 40 years as a stage and screen actor. He says when he first envisioned this production back in 1994, as a new father, he thought of it as a one-man show based on the Canadian head of the United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dellaire.
Dellaire told PBS he is still haunted by the life-and-death choices he was forced to make trying to save hundreds of thousands with ill-equipped troops.
“I do not believe that the developed world actually considers Africans, particularly south-Saharan Africans, as being total humans,” Dellaire said. “I still feel they consider them as children.”
Sanders is equally outraged by the world’s lack of response to the genocide and says he ultimately decided, “This was not a story that should be told by one white Westerner outside, it should be told by the people who lived there.”
Both Williams and Dorsey link the story to the labels that often cling not only to African nations but also to African-American communities in the United States.
Dorsey is a native of Washington, D.C., and finds that she, and her hometown, are often stereotyped.
“When someone finds out I’m from here, I’m automatically ghetto … and that’s not the case,” Dorsey says. “Africa … gets the stamp of being a place of disease, war and famine, and it’s not necessarily the case. … I’m hoping the humanity of this piece can resonate with people.”
Williams thinks about the violence that is rampant in so many U.S. cities across the nation. “We’re watching genocide in urban neighborhoods as we speak right now,” he points out. “We can get [people] to come to the show, and maybe that will turn on a lightbulb. … I’m hoping that will create an atmosphere where just maybe this will never happen again.”
Editor’s note: Unexplored Interior runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through Nov. 29.