J.T. Rogers' acclaimed new play about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, The Overwhelming
, has a distinguished pedigree, with the Roundabout Theatre producing it Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre, following a hit run at London's National Theatre.
Behind the play's genesis, though, was an unlikely patron: The Salt Lake Acting Company of Salt Lake City, Utah.
"They've sort of been my home company for a while," says Rogers, who lives in Brooklyn and whose resume includes such developing-playwright mainstays as the Eugene O'Neill Center. "They did my play White People
in 2000, and they generously commissioned plays from me and helped me get the NEA/TCG Fellowship that allowed me to write The Overwhelming
. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be talking about this play right now."
Rogers also credits that fellowship with forcing his hand.
"I wanted to write a play that dealt with genocide and Rwanda, but it was so daunting and scary that I put it off," Rogers says. "A couple of other plays got written first, and this was the next the queue, if you will."
When he applied to be Salt Lake Acting Co.'s NEA/TCG playwright in residence, he thought his Rwanda idea would impress the judges.
"I said, 'I have this serious play in the back of my mind--a play that scares the bejesus out of me,' " Rogers recalls. "I didn't think I'd get the fellowship, so I didn't think I'd have to write it. When I actually got it, I was concomitantly thrilled and terrified. I'm not a religious man, but I thought, 'Well, this is a sign that it's time to write it.' "
He then immersed himself in the subject matter and the setting, though he resolved not to travel to Rwanda or speak to any Rwandans while he wrote the play.
"In hindsight, that seems like the height of arrogance, but I had to have some real scrupulous distance to find the story," Rogers explains. "I wanted to write a fictional narrative; I didn't want to write a documentary. I was writing about a place that's truly foreign to most New York theatregoers, and I wanted first to create an interesting story."
This turned out to be a wiser choice than he could have known. Influenced in part by the white-man-abroad tales of Graham Greene, he settled on device of telling the story through the eyes of a white American academic stuck with his family in Kigali, Rwanda days before the horrific Hutu-on-Tutsi massacres commence.
Once he'd written it, Rogers then turned for advice to those who knew the subject well. He got a pleasant surprise.
"I had people go through it literally word for word, and it was thrilling to hear them say, 'Wow, you nailed it,' even as they might correct a word or a phrase," Rogers says.
He got an even bigger shock of recognition when, at last, he flew to Rwanda on the dime of the National Theater, along with the director of the London production, Max Stafford-Clark.
"Similarly to when I got the fellowship saying, 'Go ahead, write the play,' I greeted the trip to Rwanda with great anticipation and great terror," Rogers confesses with a laugh. "I kept waking up with the dream of getting out at the Kigali Airport, and realizing, 'Oh my God, it's rubbish!' "
But he soon learned that a copy of The Overwhelming
"had made the rounds," and that people had given "the green light, and wanted to talk to us." He got one key matter confirmed: "I was pleased to learn that the general ignorance of what was going to happen, which I depict in the play, was true. People had no idea what was coming."
Accurate as it was, his play turned out to function as a sort of ice-breaker.
"People would say, 'This play is good--now let me tell you what happened to me,' " Rogers recounts. "People wanted to talk about what had happened their family, their children. It became about bearing witness to their stories, sometimes 7 or 8 hours at a time. It was the most harrowing experience I've ever had."
Was he concerned that his play didn't bear witness to these remarkable, often extraordinarily grisly stories? On the contrary, in fact.
"You know, every play has a lock that has to be picked," Rogers says. "One of the things that made me keep putting the play off was: How do you write a play about a genocide? It's either going to be Grand Guignol or something impossibly uplifting. Then I realized if I set the play right before the genocide, I could write it."
The wisdom of his decision to research and write the play "remotely" was further confirmed when he returned from Rwanda.
"When I got back, my wife asked me, 'What's the most important thing you learned about the play?' I told her that the most unexpected thing I realized is that if I'd gone off to Rwanda before I wrote the play, I couldn't have written it."
The muse works in mysterious ways, obviously. For now, Rogers is pinching himself that there's an acclaimed, first-class production of his work running in his hometown, not in London, L.A. or Utah.
"I've been trying to go at least once a week," Rogers says. He's often recognized by patrons, who take him aside to tell them how much the play means to them. These have included a number of Rwandans and East Africans who are astonished to learn that the cast's black actors are American, not African.
"They've done their work, and I'm so proud of them," says Rogers, himself a former actor. He's not immune to feeling a little well-earned pride himself, he says. "What a privilege to go back to the theatre and say, 'Look, my play is still running!' "
The Overwhelming runs at the Laura Pels Theatre through Dec. 23. For tickets go here.