Our Lady of Kibeho

Play: Our Lady of Kibeho Playwright: Katori Hall Theatre: Theatre Royal Stratford East Director: James Dacre Review by Irenosen Okojie

American playwright Katori Hall’s 2014 piercingly atmospheric play Our Lady of Kibeho returns to the UK for a fresh run at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was hailed as ‘the most important play of the year’ by The Wall Street Journal when it premiered in New York.

In its new incarnation, the central theme remains, where three Rwandan schoolgirls have visions of the Virgin Mary, claiming to have had multiple communications from her during those experiences. Fifteen years before the Rwandan genocide occurs, the girls share a message from the virgin – the fall of Rwanda, a place that would soon become hell on earth.

The setting is Kibeho College where a strict regime of lessons, activities and studying the bible apply. In the beginning, Alphonsine Mumureke, played brilliantly by Taz Munya, is the first of the girls to see these visions.

Initially bullied by most of the other girls, fuelled by simmering ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi fractions, Alphonsine retains an unwavering faith in the importance and power of these visions.

She is calm despite the ignorance and cruelty of those around her, including an emissary from the Pope and other staff, especially the indomitable headmistress Sister Evangelique, a pitch perfect turn by Michelle Asante. Only the sensitive Father Tuyishime played by Ery Nzaramba shows any real concern for Alphonsine who reminds him of his mother.

Haunted by a painful past, Father Tuyishime provides counsel for Alphonsine, offering her support when she needs it. Soon, two other girls start to experience the visions, leading to chaos and confusion, leaving the staff confused and ill equipped to handle this new challenge.

Suspecting that the girls are telling the truth, Father Tuyishime is torn between ensuring the girls are treated fairly, the politics of the college and the pressure from his seniors to placate the Pope’s emissary.

A piece on the power of faith and religion, Hall cleverly anchors this exploration in the setting of a church school in rural Rwanda in the 80s. After Anathalie (Liyah Summers) and Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Claire begin to share their experiences, local and international interest grows, reaching the Vatican who send a priest named Father Flavia to investigate, played by Michael Mears. The girls’ ecstatic visions are initially joyous shifting from divine revelations to prophetic warnings of a darker period for Rwanda.

The ensemble cast is superb. Music from composer Orlando Gough and sound designer Claire Windsor beautifully illustrates the trajectory of the girls’ story, moving between African acapella songs and church hymns, creating a tapestry rich with the sounds of village life. At times also highlighting the conflicting styles of the main authority figures Father Tuyishime’s caring, easy going style and sister Evangelique’s strict mode of discipline. James Dacre’s assured direction creates a potent, absorbing atmosphere, from the wonder of divine intervention to the bleak inevitability of a darker prophecy.

There is a lovely humour to the dynamics of relationships changing and characters evolving as these unusual circumstances impact the school in different ways. Hall interrogates the fear of divine visions and society’s distrust of it, even within religious fractions, in particular, Father Flavia’s initial resistance to believing the girls, despite them passing the numerous tests he puts them through.

Here, Hall subtly comments on the history of European interference in African nations, and the intrinsic, dangerous role religion has to play within that chequered history.  It is a credit to Hall that she balances the variety of themes with such skill.

Our Lady of Kibeho is a stunning play about miracles, acts of faith and the burden of knowledge. It authentically renders the wondrously tricky minefield of girlhood on the cusp of change within a confined, suffocating space. It explores how miraculous acts can both liberate a town and yet reveal the hypocrisies of religion.

The worry would be that a play like this could feel somewhat dated, but it skilfully avoids this, possessing that rare quality of telling a very specific story in a moment in time, bearing lessons that transcend both its subject matter and its period. This is a luminous, profound, often hilarious and deeply affecting piece of theatre.

Our Lady of Kibeho is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until Saturday 2 November 2019.

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan