The full script of Katori Hall’s new play is published in the February issue of American Theatre and is available in the print and digital editions only, along with a shorter version of this extended interview.
Our Lady of Kibeho is inspired by real-life events that occurred at Kibeho high school for girls in Rwanda in 1981. A young woman, named Alphonsine Mumureke, began having extraordinary visions of the Virgin Mary, known as “Nyina wa Jambo.” Miraculously, the Virgin Mary, via Alphonsine (and others), prophesized the terrible genocide that would devastate that country.
LYNN NOTTAGE: How did you first encounter this remarkable story?
KATORI HALL: I went to Rwanda for the first time in 2009 with Erik Ehn, a playwright and teacher who takes theatre students and artists from all genres on an annual pilgrimage to Rwanda. People there are interested in learning about the genocide, and for two weeks we tour the country, visiting memorial sites, meeting both survivors and perpetrators, and we also attend a genocide studies conference. You are flooded with the horrors of the genocide to the point where you virtually become numb. You lose count of the mass graves, the skulls and the femurs. I went there with a goal to write about the genocide, but where do you start? There are literally a million tales that need to be told. There had been several movies and plays that addressed a certain parenthesis in Rwanda history—those 100 days during the genocide. But I wanted to address a different parenthesis, a different door. I did not want to enter the gates of hell.
It wasn’t until the second week that Erik’s group visited the the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kibeho, Rwanda. We arrived in a minibus after thumping up what seemed like scores of hills on unpaved roads. Once we got to the tippy-top, we saw what might as well have been a spaceship on Earth—it was a majestic cathedral that looked out over a stunning vista that stretched into the horizon of those thousands of hills that we had climbed. It seemed out of place in this small, humble rural village. One of the parish priests took us on a tour of the shrine. We started in a small chapel. He stood at the altar, and it was there he told us the tale. “This was where the girls first started having visions of the Virgin Mary,” he said. Standing on this tiny altar, the priest spun this exquisite tale of how the visions had spread not only to Alphonsine but to two other young women at the school—Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie-Claire Mukangango. “This used to be the girls dormitory and in this very spot was where the beds would break,” he continued. It was until he said that the girls eventually had darker visions that have been interpreted as visions of the genocide. When he said that, chills went down my spine. This was the way in—my sneaky way to write a play about genocide without writing a play about genocide. I walked through the doors of heaven instead of the gates of hell.
When I get stuck on an idea, sometimes it’s as simple as an arresting image or a line of dialogue that keeps haunting me. What about this story spoke to you?
So many things. The fact that the three young women were eventually confirmed by the local diocese as actual visionaries was a fact that kept me going. I kept on going back to what the priest said, “This is where their beds would break.” It was a touchstone, an emotional talisman that allowed me to write the play as if these things really happened. I had to embrace the reality of these events no matter my own spirituality or lack thereof. It was an undeniable, indisputable, tangible physical fact that could not be disproven, and I saw those beds breaking in the most spectacular of ways in my mind. Being so caught up in the rapture that your bed breaks? I knew that had to be in the play.
You’ve written two plays set in Rwanda: Children of Killers, now Our Lady of Kibeho. What is it about this particular country that keeps drawing you back?
In my own personal life I have not been able to forgive certain perpetrators for transgressions big and small. It’s my hamartia. I have relinquished my power to these so many times due to my inability to forgive. But I must admit, deep down inside, I don’t think forgiveness is truly possible. My plays about Rwanda are an exploration on the theme of forgiveness, altruistically for the world, but selfishly for myself. It’s become a kind of therapy for me.
How did you go about researching a play that is set in a rather remote region of Rwanda?
I actually went back to Rwanda in 2010 to track down one of the visionaries, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka. I had learned via YouTube that she was still living there. I hired a driver and a translator and drove those six hours from Kigali to Kibeho. When I got out of the car, I saw a woman shepherding choir boys out of the chapel, and I went up to her. “I’m from America, and I’ve come here to meet the visionary,” I said. She told me that the priest down the hill would be able to tell me where she was. So I went all the way down that big ole hill, knocked on the door, awakened that poor priest from his nap and repeated my demand. He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and led me back up the hill only to point at the woman who had sent me down the hill and say, “There she is. Right there!” Oh, Anathalie, that tricky, tricky visionary! We cornered her outside of his office. She and the priest were laughing together. I asked my translator what they were saying. She replied, “You don’t want to know.”
Anathalie refused to speak to me, and it wasn’t until four days later, after much stalking on my part—convincing the priest to give me her cell number, calling her constantly—that she sat down with me. I came back with the same driver, a different translator, who was Muslim. We knocked on the door, and she said, “Ugh, it’s you.” I guess she didn’t think I was going to come back. She invited us inside, we bowed our heads in prayer—the heathen, the Muslim and the visionary—and we began. For two hours, she told me about growing up in Kibeho, when she started having visions in 1981, and how she survived the genocide 13 years later.
One of the many things that I loved about your play is that it takes place in a moment before the genocide, a moment when there was still space for optimism in the lives of the young women. You masterfully handled telling the story of the growing ethnic divide, while at the same time you avoid having the genocide overshadow the narrative. We feel its presence looming in the distance, but we are able to lose ourselves in the coming of age story of the young women. When you were writing the play, were you thinking about how you were going to balance the personal and political?
I always felt that the story about the visions would always be my focus point. And that the rumblings of ethnic tension would play at the edges of the frame, be blurred out sometimes even. But as the depth of field becomes longer, even the background snaps into focus, where click-click, both the story about three girls claiming their rightful place in the light exists side-by-side with the darkness and ugliness of a pending genocide. I’m a strong believer that the personal is political, and those of us whose very existence is threatened by political manipulation, apathy or destruction often write from the intersection of those spaces. But even being apolitical in your writing I think can be a frightening political act.
Rwanda is a country of incredible contradictions: It’s at once quite beautiful and orderly, and yet was the setting of unthinkable ugliness and chaos. People are warm and generous, but often reticent when it comes to speaking about the past. When you were researching this piece, did you meet any resistance or suspicion?
Anathalie definitely gave me a run for my money, but oddly she was really the only one, and who could blame her? Ever since she was a teenager people have been asking her about what the Virgin Mary said to her. It must be incredibly annoying to have people flying over to your home thinking that they can demand your time and energy. Really, how dare I? But I accept that I can be annoying and persistent. But I feel as though Anathalie ultimately opened up to me because she knows the power of stories. I asked her what she would want from a play about Kibeho. “Only that Our Lady’s message is heard,” she said. I think that’s why she tells her tale for the millionth time to those who come from near and far. I, like her, believe in the transformative power of stories, of the word.
What have been some of the challenges to bringing this story to the stage?
It was originally commissioned by a theatre that eventually passed, but luckily I had started my five-year residency at Signature and this was in the pile of plays I handed over. I have been told that my work can be “challenging.” My casts are too big, sets too expensive, language too aggressive. The excuses that were told to me and my agents went on and on. But Signature is an uncompromising playwrights’ theatre, and they believe in the body of a playwright’s work. They produce your redheaded stepchildren, so to speak. I’ve really found a home at Signature. I was going to “go small” and cut characters out of Our Lady and just stay confined to the school, but Jim Houghton, the artistic director, said to me, “No, write the play you want to write.” I’ve truly been blessed by Jim and that theatre.
Religion has had a complicated history on the American stage, and many contemporary plays that tackle Christianity approach it from a place of cynicism or skepticism. However, I found your play was quite sensitive and respectful in its depiction of the characters’ faith. What role did your own faith, if any, play in your investigation of this particular story?
I’ve been a witness to the power of religion and its transformative quality on a lot of family members’ lives. A lot of people probably look at my work and think I’m a zealot of some sort, but I actually call myself a heathen, jokingly…sort of. I don’t go to church regularly. Hell, I don’t even go on Easter anymore. I’m not very religious, but I do believe in the Spirit. And Energy. I respect it even if I don’t go to church weekly. I bow down to spirit. That I know is real.
The play is based on a true story, but what liberties did you take in the storytelling?
Oh, lots! I’ve made up numerous characters. Compressed time. Assigned people ethnic categories when I really didn’t know. Jumped months. I couldn’t get my hands on the archive that the Vatican keeps when apparitions are tested, so I was left to my own dark imagination in visually articulating those tests. I had a frame, a slight timeline, I adhered to, but I let myself go, as I do with a lot of my history-inspired work. I wasn’t there, so it’ll never be 100 percent right. I chase the essence, the emotion of the events. There is an African proverb: All stories are true.
When I first encountered your work, I was struck by how beautifully and effortlessly you use language. How did you go about conjuring the cadences and idiomatic vocabulary of this piece?
For me, it’s been about spending a lot of time in East Africa. Since starting this piece, I’ve been to Rwanda four times and Uganda nine times. My ear is really fine-tuned to the East African rhythm, a softness, a closeness, a sparseness. A more succinct poetry than I’m used to. I felt that I had to learn a whole new language. A more subtle way of communicating. In Rwanda, silence is so loud. It also doesn’t hurt that my husband descends from the Ankole in southwestern Uganda, which is closest to Rwanda. There is quite a lot of overlap in sayings with Rwandese people. He acts as my at-home dramaturg!
What’s happening in Kibeho today? And are the folks there aware of the play?
People are still embarking on pilgrimages to Kibeho. Every August, thousands climb the hills up to Kibeho to celebrate the Assumption of Mary feast. In fact, news outlets reported that people saw the sun dance this past Assumption. Of course, it was not confirmed, but that’s the word on the street. I think people who work at the church are aware of the play, as several news outlets from Rwanda have reported on the Signature production. My hope is to take a copy of the play and give it to Anathalie and tell her, “See, the message is being spread!” Just like She wanted.
Lynn Nottage is a playwright. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her play Ruined.