In the second act of Our Lady of Kibeho, now playing at the Signature Theatre, one priest admonishes another with the line, “You have a weak stomach for faith I see.” The same could also be said for New York theatre audiences, who prefer religious motifs to be accompanied by biting satire—or a big musical number.
Written by Katori Hall, Our Lady of Kibeho does neither, going the route of a drama based on true events. In 1981, Alphonsine Mumureke (played by Nneka Okafor), a student at an all-girls Catholic school in Kibeho, Rwanda, starts to have visions of the Virgin Mary. At first her visions are thought to be the imaginings of a young girl. Then another classmate, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka (Mandi Masden) begins to have visions too. Both girls face the threat of expulsion from the school, and are mercilessly bullied by Marie-Claire Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango)… until the Virgin Mary visits her, too. The school’s head priest, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) wants to believe the girls’ visions, while Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), the head nun, does not. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a priest sent by the Vatican, investigates the truth behind the girls’ visions. What they all soon discover is that the Virgin Mother’s messages also warn of a dark future for Rwanda.
At first, I wasn’t sure what narrative direction Our Lady of Kibeho was going to take. Was it going to be like Doubt, where the mystery depended on the veracity of the characters? Or was it going to treat the religious material with an excess of derision or reverence? Thankfully enough, none of these scenarios play a part in Our Lady of Kibeho. Yes, Mary’s apparitions are presented as fact rather than fantasy (with breathtaking special and aerial effects, designed by Greg Meeh and Paul Rubin). But the strength of the show lies not in its religious stance, but in the faith of its characters. Yes, Alphonsine is the first to receive visions of Mary, and actress Nneka Okafor embodies the role with grace. Still, she feels the burdens of the visions, and is tempted to try and sin to make the visions stop.
Some of the play’s best scenes involve the character’s responses to the visions. Father Tuyishime wants to believe the girls… but he has not prayed in eight years. Sister Evangelique seems to thwart the girls at every turn… but it’s because she wonders why she cannot see the Virgin Mary, too. And Father Flavia is skeptical if miracles can truly come to a village in Rwanda.
The play’s acceptance of the girls’ visions also allows audiences to focus on another dramatic current running through Our Lady of Kibeho: the ethnic tensions in Rwanda that led to the country’s horrific genocide in 1994. In the same way that Cabaret slowly reveals the future devastation that Nazis will bring to Berlin, Our Lady of Kibeho continually makes references to the Hutu/Tutsi conflict. When Alphonsine is initially mocked for her visions, her Tutsi background is also used against her. Marie Claire, who first bullies Alphonsine, is actually pretending to be Hutu… and will later die for it. (The real life Marie Claire was killed in the genocide; in the play, Marie Claire has a vision of her death.) And when Father Tuyishime and Sister Evangelique disagree over the girls’ well-being, there is the underlying knowledge that Father Tuyishime is head of the school because he is Tutsi… and Sister Evangelique is not.
Our Lady of Kibeho is a definite must-see. Katori Hall’s play about three girls who inspire a nation the brink of destruction is as exhilarating as it is devastating—and that is truly a miracle.