Ken Urban’s complex, intelligent play, Sense of an Ending, about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, is a work about healing and forgiveness, and about a country’s coming to terms with collective trauma. It is about what truth is, both in the eyes of the law and on a human level, how it changes according to individual experience and perception, and whether, in the end, it actually even matters.
Charles, an African- American journalist, comes to Rwanda to interview two Hutu nuns accused of aiding in the murder of hundreds of Tutsis. Charles hopes that by writing his article he can prove their innocence and, at the same time, rescue a flagging career marred by scandal. But his agenda is derailed by the pursuit of truth and by the survivors who are pushing for justice to take place in their own country.
The smart staging by director Jonathan O’Boyle reminds us of the colluding role the Catholic Church played in Rwanda’s genocide: all actors at differing times occupy the space in the shape of the crucifix which brings with it its own ironies- if characters can’t understand each other in a verbal sense, they swap seats as if to understand another’s point of view, embracing the idea behind Catholicism’s Stations of the Cross. Beneath a veil of illusion, the nuns believe that they have God’s protection whilst knowing deep down, and as we see by designer Cecilia Carey’s blood spattered stained glass windows, that there is a truth that they will not face.
Although we are invited to see Rwanda through the naive eyes of an African-American outsider, although his journey we follow, the play’s most powerful scene features the two people for whom resolving their personal crises with each other really matters. After such spiritual damage, after identity, trust, purpose and meaning have all been destroyed, the act of facing the trauma of the genocide becomes the beating heart of the play in a scene which is breathtaking in its emotional intelligence.
In this way the play also raises several questions: why do we need the character of Charles with his Western perspective at all? Wouldn’t it be better to see everything solely through the eyes of the Rwandans? Can forgiveness and healing of this magnitude happen so quickly? And, finally, who is this play really about?
The first question is to do with implication. In order to deal with our perceptions of the nuns and the atrocities to which they were a party, we need Charles to be us. To understand the Rwandan genocide we need more than Hutus, Tutsis, the militias, we need the framing of the Western World. Through Charles our hope can have expression, through Charles we are forced to confront the conflicting and contrasting stories of the Rwandans and experience them all.
The play also addresses the subject of forgiveness. People can spend years obsessing about the mechanics of forgiveness and become trapped in its language. Sense of an Ending shows that forgiveness can take place in an instant. It is an act that can happen as soon as two people are willing to feel for each other. Unrealistic this may be, but don’t we want plays to challenge us in this way?
At first the play feels as if it is Charles’ story. Then alternatively it feels like that of the nuns, and then finally of Dusabi, the sole survivor of the massacre. This is a play about the politics of experience and who owns that experience. Everyone owns it here, including those of us watching. Ben Onwukwe’s Charles does not let us escape. The versatile Abubakar Salim, as the young soldier Paul, makes us laugh at his horror filled jokes even as we realise his humour is the only way he can prevent himself from going mad. We hope that Akiya Henry, as the accused Sister Alice, will be innocent as she claims, even though Lynette Clarke’s stubborn bravado as Sister Justina infers a different story. Kevin Golding’s Dusabi comes to stand as a symbol of all of Rwanda’s pain.