The truth is a slippery commodity amid the aftershocks of civil war, especially when punishment meted out by a world court is the reparation for inhumane and merciless barbarism. In Sense of an Ending, Ken Urban’s dynamic and thrumming counterpoint to the Rwandan genocide, a truth-compromised journalist investigates whether two imprisoned Hutu nuns are being sacrificed as scapegoats to avenge a Tutsi massacre that happened five years earlier. What he discovers about them, himself, and others rocks his own world and reconciles him to viewing his existence in a new way.
Whether this is beneficial, whether this perception will ultimately help him in the future, is opaque, in contrast to the play’s forceful themes which Urban dramatically unleashes by the conclusion.
Sense of an Ending at 59E59 Theaters is compelling and fascinating. Because of the taut direction by Adam Fitzgerald, the adroit cast maintains suspense throughout and creates an undercurrent of edginess which keeps us engaged. The actors modulate their performances to negotiate the mazes of mystery, duplicity and authenticity in their sessions with the probing, conflicted journalist, Charles. Because of Urban’s well-drawn and meaty characterizations, his incisive selection of overarching conflicts, and his profound themes, we identify with the characters as the story drives through to the tough questions about justice and right action in the face of terrifying and brutal oppression.
Throughout the production we remain intrigued as Charles (a sensitive performance by Joshua David Robinson) attempts to discover the truth – if truth is even the right way to identify what happened during the church massacre. The Hutu nuns, Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham is effective and stark in her revelatory scenes) and Sister Justina (a poignant and affecting performance by Heather Alicia Simms) may or may not have been present. Charles hopes to obtain a groundbreaking story so he can redeem his career from a disastrous “mistake.”
To solidify his success he has arranged to get an “exclusive” about how the Hutu nuns have been wrongfully detained and accused of complicity to commit genocide against hundreds of Tutsis who sought refuge at a Catholic compound (school and church). Charles believes that his story may influence the outcome for the nuns who will go before a Belgian court and be tried for crimes against humanity. In his quest to seek their possible exoneration, he will interview them and then follow them on their journey to Belgium after the Easter weekend (an obvious symbol of death and resurrection), during which time he visits them in jail and visits the site of the massacre.
Neither the truth nor the facts are easily assessed under the watchful, sinister eyes of the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s (RPF) Corporal Paul (a terrific performance by Hubert Point-Du Jour, whose manner is calm and pleasant with a frightening undercurrent of seething intensity). Paul, a Tutsi whose people were brutalized over a 100-day period until he and the RPF took control and stopped the horror, intends for Charles not to placate the “powers that be” who may support the nuns and the Hutu. His determination is for this American journalist to understand the fullness of what happened and to narrow the boundaries of moral, religious and ethical relativism so that he can see from another perspective, a Tutsi’s perspective.
This pivotal character is the basis for the conundrums that Urban raises. He also heightens the journalist’s dilemma and intensifies it as Charles tries to decipher the clues to the nuns’ innocence or guilt. Urban’s characterizations are exceptionally crafted, especially the character of Paul; Point-Du Jour makes the part his own and is a standout.
Paul’s wild card for persuading Charles to be more objective and to write with power about what occurred at the Catholic compound comes in the form of Tutsi witness Dusabi (a compelling, stirring performance by Danyon Davis). Dusabi has been emotionally damaged by the events. Though he is bowed, he is not broken. Yet, in an attempt to put the past behind him forever, he refuses to go to Belgium to testify at the nuns’ trial. He has learned to trust no one, including foreign influencers, and is reluctant to speak to Charles. He also fears that by talking about the past, he will resurrect and psychically relive the traumatic events he experienced during the 100-day darkness and devastation exacted by malevolent Hutus.
In a moment-to-moment rendering through Charles’ interviews and discussions with Paul and the nuns, we anticipate the worst. As we listen to their accounts we also question Charles’ ultimate motive in gleaning their stories. Yet we identify and understand the impossibility of how the nuns could live through the cataclysmic days of conflict and bloody pandemonium, trying to “keep their religion” of Christian charity to all, especially their enemies the Tutsis. Charles is convinced that the nuns are incapable of bloodshed; and if that is so, should they not be found innocent? He considers that their deprivation and imprisonment is another form of genocidal abuse at the hands of their centuries-old enemies, the Tutsis, who once again are in power.
On the other hand, there is the Tutsi perspective, quietly and almost menacingly introduced by Paul, the RPF Corporal. Paul insinuates that Sister Justina and Sister Alice are not the good Christians they present themselves as. He tells Charles their testimony is not to be trusted. However, if as Paul suggests, they are lying, does Charles have the will to tease out the truth through intense but gentle questioning? Are they masking their racist attitudes toward their enemies, the Tutsis? If so, this is a fact that will not please his editors back in America who expect a story about the maligned, scapegoated nuns being made to suffer as representatives of their hated ethnic group, the Hutus.
The elements of the story that Paul, Sister Justina and Sister Alice explain are elusive. Nothing is clear, and the deeper Charles attempts to dig, the more the simple distinctions between right and wrong, self-interest and sacrifice, truth and lies evanesce. It is only when testimony is given by Dusabi that substance is realized and Charles must then decide for himself what is, and what he must then write.
Urban’s various and multiple themes lurk around the corners of Charles’ questions of the nuns, Paul, and Dusabi. We are encouraged to consider to what extent obfuscation by all parties is inevitable as they try to remain sane. To attempt to achieve some sort “health” the witnesses, perpetrators and victims who have been a party to horrific acts must cloud the realities and not allow their imaginations to recreate the savage circumstances and make them present. To survive, any reminders of barbaric extermination must continually be suppressed. They must mentally run from such experiences to get to the next hour, day, year.
Urban’s play reveals that regardless of the role played, oppressor or oppressed, brutalized or brutalizer, one’s psyche is destroyed. In light of this, he subtly asks, how does conscience serve, confront, and deal with the personal aftershocks of such inhumanity? Does one hate forever, feel justified, rationalize, deny? Or to move through the experience does one have to live miserably while fearful pictures, sounds and feelings pound one’s being? Is healing indeed possible? Is redemption from such mercilessness and pain possible? Is resurrection to life possible? If so, how?
When Charles indirectly blames God for the ironhearted annihilation of Tutsis, Paul avers with great irony, “God is good,” and wisely retorts that it is man who is responsible for such murderous behavior. In these lines, Urban has delivered the greatest truth, the greatest hope, the greatest devastation. And it is clear in Sense of an Ending that it is up to us to come to the end of needing to commit genocide. How to do this Urban broadly implies by the play’s symbolic conclusion.