Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho, written to mark 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, is at its heart a story of humanity. It’s both an exploration of female power, whilst remaining firmly rooted in the harrowing tale of 16-year-old school girl Alphonsine Mumureke (Taz Munya) and her two friends, Marie-Claire Mukangango (Pepter Lunkuse) and Anathalie (Liyah Summers).
The play opens at Kibeho College in southern Rwanda 1981, the set brought to life by an eerie ambience created by dream-like soundscapes. The room is warm, a yellow light fills the stage and, despite the impressive grandiosity of Stratford East’s Theatre Royal, we are transported to a humble school room in the heart of Africa.
Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante) explodes onto the stage, her vibrancy and energy filling the space and introducing the play with an unexpected comedic tone. Michelle Asante does a fantastic job of breaking up the severity of the subject matter with her matter-of-fact performance bringing great moments of comedy throughout. Her counterpart, Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), cleverly punctuates his performance with a soft hesitance creating a wholly lovable character who remains the voice of reason.
As Alphonsine, Taz Munya’s performance is rooted in gentle honesty. You have absolute faith in her from the moment she steps out onto the stage, due to the combination of Munya’s reserved, economic physicality and her powerful vocal assertion.
Pepter Lunkuse, as Marie-Claire, is not always likeable, but a fantastic character to watch grow. Her tender relationship with Sister Envangelique carefully plays out as the power dynamics shift like a see-saw from one to the other, each developing a truly heartwarming friendship between the women.
Worth mentioning without a doubt is James Dacre’s set. While sparse, it makes full use of the deep stage, which could easily swallow performances whole, and the clever use of lighting creates two starkly different spaces, really bringing the idea of outside and inside to life.
In short, Our Lady Of Kibeho transports you. While some plays rooted in historical fact can try and hit the audience round the head with meanings and lessons, writer Katori Hall has skillfully woven a politically harrowing message seamlessly into a work which, at its core, is a delicate exploration of human nature and relationships. It’s a play not to be missed.
Main image: Our Lady of Kibeho ensemble. Photo: Manuel Harlan