October 24, 2007
Underwhelmed by "The Overwhelming"
Africa is hot. And I'm not talking about its climate. Movies like "The Last King of Scotland," "Blood Diamond" and "Hotel Rwanda" take gimlet-eyed looks at the continent and end up multi-Oscar nominees. Books like Ishmael Beah's memoir "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," and Russell Bank's "The Darling," a novel that deals with the 1980 coup in Liberia, land on the bestsellers' list. Bono and George Clooney speak out for the poorest and most war-ravaged in Africa. Angelina Jolie and Madonna take in African children. And now New York theater is taking up the cause.
In August, Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle's one-man show about oil politics in Nigeria, opened at the Culture Project. This week, The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers' musings about genocide in Rwanda, opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. What all of these stories, with the exception of "Hotel Rwanda" and "A Long Way Gone," have in common is that their tales are told from the perspective of white protagonists, as though the people who are offering them don't trust that their audiences will be sufficiently interested in people who are foreign and black.
Still, I had been looking forward to seeing The Overwhelming and I was excited about seeing it with my friend Lisa who has been studying conflict resolution in war-torn regions and has even traveled to Ethiopia to work with young people there. Lisa, a former Hollywood exec who started off in the theater, was also excited about the fact that Max Stafford-Clark, who has worked with such politically savvy British playwrights as David Hare and Caryl Churchill, was directing the show. But Americans, it seems, aren't as adept at putting politics on stage. Both Lisa and I were disappointed. While it's clear Rogers is well meaning, this production comes across as more didactic than dramatic and Stafford-Clark's spell-it-out-for-the-yanks direction doesn't help.
It wasn't always thus. Lillian Hellman wrote Watch on the Rhine in 1940 to urge Americans to get into the war in Europe and it played for a respectable 378 performances ("Miss Hellman has brought the awful truth close to home," Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review. "She has translated the death struggle behind ideas in familiar terms we are bound to respect and understand"). It later got made into a Bette Davis movie. When Arthur Miller's The Crucible opened in 1953, everyone knew it was more an allegory about McCarthyism than a history about the Salem witch trials (Said Atkinson, "Since The Crucible is a play about bigotry, it has certain current significance….But Mr. Miller is not delivering a polemic"). It ran for only 197 performances but has been revived on Broadway four times and made into two TV movies and a feature film.
The problem with this production of The Overwhelming is that it conveys no real urgency or passion. Rogers tries to sidestep the white protagonist problem by making his central character a white American political science professor married to an African-American writer. But as played by Sam Robards (son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall), the professor is the least interesting person on stage and the way Linda Powell (daughter of Colin Powell) plays his wife, she comes across as silly and annoying. Neither is believable. The African characters are ciphers too. The most intriguing character is the professor's son, genuinely interested in the people he encounters in Africa, openly confused by their situation and sensitively played by Michael Stahl-David. I wish the play had been about him.
Some people left during the intermission, including the sister of a colleague from work I ran into, both of them theater junkies —but exacting ones. Lisa and I stayed. Afterwards, we walked over to the Algonquin Hotel and tried to analyze our discontent over a drink in its cozy sitting-room bar. As we talked, we remembered that the play had been a hit when it was produced in London last year. Which suggests that the fault in this iteration may not be entirely Rogers'. But then, the Brits, unlike their American cousins, don't shy away from the inherent messiness of really wrestling with political theater.