J.T. Rogers's The Overwhelming, the troubling new political thriller receiving its U.S. premiere this month at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, comes with tragic historical roots.
It is set on the edge of darkness — in early 1994 in the East African village of Kigali, into which a middle-aged American academic, his new African American wife and his disaffected teenage son have stumbled, thinking it a safe place. Kigali is the capital of Rwanda, and genocide is just around the corner, executed by the ruling Hutus over the "rebel" Tutsis while the UN and America wage a war of words over who will pay for the peacekeeping.
Like the rest of us, Rogers read about what was happening when it was happening, "but the more I read and tried to get from the news," he confesses, "the more confused I got. The general message was 'Well, these people do this.' If I've learned anything as a playwright, it is that people don't just do things for no good reason. All of a sudden, out of the blue, we're getting reports that a population rose up, seemingly as one, and just murdered 800,000 people in 100 days — the speed of which dwarfs the Holocaust considerably — and all of that being done with machete. If you've ever wielded a machete, you realize how much physical labor and time it takes to kill somebody that way."
Being an actor–author raising a family in Brooklyn, playwriting to his heart's content between office-temp jobs, Rogers was worlds removed from the Rwandan catastrophe. That distance kept him at bay from the play. "I wasn't sure how to approach it, and that's one of the things that delayed me from working on it. The one thing I knew was I wasn't interested in writing a play, quote, 'about genocide,' unquote. You can't do that. The stage doesn't work that way. It would either be beyond gruesome or reductive and sentimental.
"And I didn't want to do any of those things. What happens to me is that I'll think of an idea for a play, and the ones that really scare me are the ones I end up writing. Often, I'll put those off and work on something else that scares me less, so I put it in The Fear File, and it sorta worked its way up as I learned things. This play was the next in the hamper."
Eventually, it occurred to Rogers that he could use his distance from the war zone for dramatic, even enlightening effect. He could deliberately make his characters strangers in a strange land — innocents abroad, uncomprehending, idealistic, naïve — and allow them to be easily overwhelmed by the unbridled hatred running murderously amok around them.
"I try to ask the audience the question I ask myself — and this is why I ended up writing the play: 'What would you do if you were placed in a situation where you have no good options? When they pull the rug out from under you, who are you then?'" At one point in the play his main character is asked point-blank: "What would you give up to save these people, Jack?"
Jack is a Yank writer who has come to a foreign city to look up a pal from college who now has hospital connections — only to discover that the friend has disappeared and is presumed dead. Eventually, the missing friend turns up alive — if morally and politically compromised — and the resulting disillusion speedily and inevitably dovetails into disaster.
If that premise sounds familiar, you may also be picking up a zither accompaniment — but the crucial difference is that Graham Greene was writing about postwar Vienna with "The Third Man," and Rogers is focused on pre-war Rwanda. The Overwhelming betrays other Greene roots as well, mainly in tragic messes that wrong-headed Americans make abroad ("The Quiet American," "Our Man in Havana"). "You're seeking answers in a country you don't know without a language to understand it," a UN officer points out in the play.
"I think one should steal from the best," Rogers offers brightly and unblinkingly. "There's also a structural conceit I borrowed, with gratitude, from Caryl Churchill. I purposely wrote the play so that the audience didn't need to know anything about East Africa or the Rwanda genocide to follow it. It's not a history lesson per se. It's a play set against this backdrop. Almost any play is a personal and private story set against a larger backdrop.
"I want the audience to be gripped by what's going on, who's missing, who's being honest or lying — that sort of Graham Greene thriller quality — so the story will be what interests them. The fact that people are desperate when they talk politics is simply inherent in the story. They're not standing around lecturing the audience. I wanted to tell the story so lots of different political points of view — many of which I don't agree with — would be honestly put onstage and the audience would say, 'Who do I agree with in this story?'"
Rogers was changing diapers the moment his life changed forever. The phone rang, and on the other end was the artistic director of the National Theatre in London, Nicholas Hytner, asking to do The Overwhelming. Max Stafford-Clark directed the world premiere there in May of 2006, and he is currently reprising that chore for its American bow.
The author, who has been writing 20 of his 39 years and is now enjoying the first flush of real success, has said bye to Office Temps. "I now make a living as a playwright," he is proud to report. "That happened when I got the call from the National. It's easy to see in hindsight. The momentum builds up and you feel like it's never going to happen — then, all of a sudden, you've crossed the road. Presto!" Seconding that magic: he has a new play in the works, in his computer, earmarked for — where else? — the National in London.
"The Overwhelming is proof that you write what you need to write. I wrote this play convinced that, if there were one play of mine that would never be done anywhere, it would be this — a play set in Africa, with 11 people, in four languages. And here I am, getting a debut at the National in London and now another one here with Roundabout."