African conflicts simmer and explode on NY Stages

Plays show western complicity in Nigeria and Rwanda violence
By Lucy Komisar
Dec 1, 2007

Murderous conflicts in Africa are dramatized in two American plays off-Broadway that vividly call up the clashes in the oil region of Nigeria and the Rwanda genocide of over a decade ago. In both cases playwrights show inter-communal violence heightened by western interests‘ actions or neglect.

The one-man “Tings dey happen” by Dan Hoyle is most successful in presenting the characters of the Niger Delta, from militants demanding their share of oil wealth to the self-serving American ambassador and expatriates. “The Overwhelming,” by J.T. Rogers, also uses the “American visitor” device, though the personal stories seem trivial in the context of events.

Hoyle‘s play is a composite of people he met as a Fulbright scholar researching oil politics in Nigeria. He is brilliant in shifting from one character to the next, adopted accents and body language that let him get into the skins of Nigerians and foreigners. He provides an overriding sense of corruption and despair in a place despoiled by foreign oil companies — Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip, Elf — in cahoots with corrupt national leaders.

One man explains: “You go down to creeks, you want to get some water, all polluted because of di oil.” Another says, “So now, all di fish have run away. And when we put our nets, dey only catch di Chevron boats. Di boats full of our oil.”

The locals respond with protests, attacks on oil facilities and kidnappings of oil workers. A militant leader says, “Can you hear it? Shell flow station. Every day it is taking our oil. And we don‘t know where di money is going. Do you? Sometimes we ask dis question, and shut down di Shell flow station.”

Oil workers in the expatriate bar know where the money goes: One says, “You do the maths. 12 million to bore a hole, gives back 10,000 barrels a day, $50 a barrel, that‘s 200 million a year. Yeah it‘s good for us, shit for Nigerians!”

The society is degraded, with violence turned inward. An oil company community relations officer tells Dan, “Now, our own brothers are oppressing us… di worst.” He explains that “they take and take and eat and eat and oh they are killing us! They are making black man to kill each other.”

A sniper explains, “You see in Niger Delta, dere are two ways to get money. Oil bunkering: you go to di pipeline, tap di pipeline, take off di oil… and sell it on high seas to Lebanese guys. Or you are a fighter. When Shell comes, we know de‘ll be money. Jobs. Contracts. Money. Before it is always our rival group getting all di money. In 2003, we rise up and battle them for four days. Many souls were lost. We won the battle. So now we are enjoying di Shell contracts.”

A warlord tells Dan, “The oil companies are the access of evil from which Nigeria gains the economic wherewithal to oppress the Nigerian people. Without Shell, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, there would be no Nigerian state. And if America withdraws its support for Nigerian government, that regime will collapse!”

Ironically, the US ambassador tells Dan, “Now you have to remember, development is a very western concept.”

Dan argues at the young diplomats club, “Government only works when it is dependent on its own people. I mean Nigeria, 80% of revenues are from oil? Hello! Politicians don‘t have to pay attention to the people. Its citizens are the oil companies.”

Audiences get a clearer sense of what‘s happening in Nigeria from Hoyle‘s performance than from any mainstream newspaper they‘re likely to read.

In Roger‘s fictional story, an American family visits Rwanda in 1994. Jack (Sam Robards), a professor, accompanied by wife Linda (Linda Powell) and son Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David), is researching a book about grass-roots activists and comes to interview his college roommate, Joseph (Ron Cephas Jones), a Tutsi who runs a children‘s AIDS clinic. Joseph has disappeared.

The play is fast-paced and melodramatic, almost cinematic. Sometimes it descends into the hokey. Characters are more caricatures than real.

You also get a bit lost if you don‘t know the background: the minority Tutsis, privileged by Belgian colonialists to enforce their rule, upon independence in 1962 sought to maintain power violently. The majority Hutus took over government, and many Tutsis fled to Uganda and Zaire. Those who remained suffered severe discrimination and a decade of pogroms.

Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded from Uganda in 1990. France intervened militarily supporting the Hutus. A peace process for power-sharing prompted the return of Tutsi refugees and troops. Hutu extremists shot down the plane of moderate Hutu President Juvenal Habyirimana in April 1994. The Hutu genocide exploded, killing 800,000 Tutsis, most within a few weeks.

The visitors witness the extremist Hutus‘ hatred, growing violence, and international failure to respond. Mizinga (Charles Parnell), a government official, tells Linda that foreigners don‘t understand. “Thirty-five ago they raped and killed us, so we forced them from this land. For thirty-five years they have lived in Uganda. They do not even speak French. ….And yet, somehow, they are the victims. This is what the UN, their UNAMIR soldiers here, this is what they think.”

Do foreigners share blame for what will come? A South African NGO worker (Boris McGiver) complains that the foreign community is threatening to cut off aid unless Habyarimana implements power-sharing in a few weeks. He asks, “Who came up with this? Because they need more tension here?…People are being killed here because of the fucking elections. The UN forced them down the government‘s throat, they lost, now they‘re panicked. Now you‘ve got Hutu elites arming private militias and hoarding weapons. They‘re not thinking about power sharing, they‘re thinking how many Tutsis do I have to kill to keep what‘s mine.”

Suddenly, Joseph appears and tells Jack, “I have lists. Of names. People who are to be killed. Hundreds of people….They are like me: doctors, lawyers, teachers. Some are Hutu, some are Tutsi.” He asks for help. Jack suggests the French. Joseph replies, “Their soldiers fought the RPF! There is only still a war because of the French.”

Foreigners — French and American diplomats, UN Blue Berets – come off badly. The Frenchman (McGiver) says, “The Khmer Noir we call these rebels.…Their general….Why did your government train this Kagame? Why did you teach him how to fight so that this English-speaking soldier with his English-speaking army could invade an ally of France?”

When Jack searches out a US diplomat (James Rebhorn), the man hardly looks up from his golf game. Jack tells him, “People are going to be killed. There are lists….I‘ve seen them, yes, hundreds of people…. Something is going to happen.”

“I know,” the diplomat says. “What would you give up to save these people, Jack? Would you send Geoffrey?” Would he send young Americans “to risk their lives to save some people on some list because, it‘s the right thing to do?…When in the history of the world has there been a country with a foreign policy based on “It‘s the right thing to do?”

A UN Blue Beret major (Owiso Odera) tells him, “We are a small, dirty Band-Aid on a large, festering wound….What do you think we can do here?”

“Help? Protect?” Jack replies.

“We are instruments,” the major says. “For an instrument to be used, there must be a will to do so….the world must care. This country, these people, do you think the world cares?”

When forced to choose between protecting Joseph or his own family, what will Jack do? The playwrights make us ask, what does the world do now in Nigeria, Rwanda….in Darfur?

“The Overwhelming.” Written by J.T. Rogers. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Starring Chris Chalk, Ron Cephas Jones, Tisola Logan, Boris McGiver, Owiso Odera, Charles Parnell, Linda Powell, James Rebhorn, Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David, Sharon Washington. Sets by Tim Shortall. Costumes by Tobin Ost. Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street. Tue – Sat at 7:30pm; Wed, Sat – Sun at 2pm. Running time: 2:15. Through Dec 23, 2007. 212-719-1300.

˜Tings dey happen.” Written and performed by Dan Hoyle. Directed by Charlie Varon. Culture Project at 55 Mercer Street (bet Broome & Grand). Tues, Thurs, & Fri 8pm and Sat 7pm. Running time: 1:30. Through Dec 22, 2007. $45; students rush $20. 212-352-3101.

“Tings dey happen” by Lyra Harris
“The Overwhelming” by Joan Marcus

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