On October 29, Mosaic Theater Company launched its inaugural six-play season with Unexplored Interior, a sweeping exploration of the political and social forces behind the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
It’s not every day that a much lauded–yet deeply controversial–theater player makes such an ambitious comeback. Mosaic artistic director Ari Roth spent 18 years at Theater J until his firing turned into a public relations fiasco last year. He didn’t leave quietly. In less than a year, he raised $1.6 million for his new venture, a highly anticipated company dedicated to provocative, socially conscious theater.
“I’ve come to believe audiences come to see portraits of themselves,” Roth says. “[Unexplored Interior] was a great starting point because it is smart enough to invoke our passivity to the plights of so many others who have suffered.”
The world-premiere also marks the playwriting debut of actor Jay O. Sanders. Known for his work in films such as JFK and Green Lantern and television shows like True Detective and Law and Order, he’s spent the last decade of his life researching the tragedy in Rwanda.
When the violence erupted there, Sanders was at home caring for his five-week-old son, watching the events unfold on the news. “Here I was the guardian of a life for the first time,” he says, “and I was struck by the apathy of the rest of the world that just couldn’t see themselves in [the Rwandans].”
What does it take, Sanders says he asked himself, to drive one faction of a community that has lived for hundreds of years as neighbors, friends, and family to such brutality? His answer can be found in his play’s complicated web, represented by a cast of more than 15 characters.
The narrative structure is told primarily through the perspective of a young Rwandan film student, Raymond (Desmond Bing), who leaves the country before the genocide. He returns later with his former film teacher and mentor’s widow, Kate (Erika Rose), to create a documentary film.
The result is an epic yet deeply personal rumination on how people can resort to dehumanization. As Rwandan Colonel Théoneste Bagosora (Jefferson A. Russell) trains Hutu boys on how to kill their neighbors with machetes he warns, “You must not look into [the Tutsi’s] eyes. These snakes are crafty. They will soften your arm and weaken your resolve.”
Sander’s script is strongest in these moments of chilling, detached dialogue, and weakest in those that resort to mere telling. Some characters are prone to lecturing at various points, often to raise historical parallels–the Holocaust, the Philippine-American War–that were often teased elsewhere in dialogue. Similarly, the relationship between Raymond and his grandfather, Felicien, is most poignant in their simple, heartfelt exchanges, but on occasion verges on saccharine.
With so many characters competing for attention, you might expect some to recede into the background. But each member of the cast held their own. Bing, as Raymond, provided the show with a level of intensity and raw emotion that carried its weaker moments.
“It was a story I had to tell,” Sanders says. “It’s about humanity… about what’s difficult to see and acknowledge in ourselves.”
Unexplored Interior is now playing at Atlas Performing Arts Center through November 29. Tickets $15 to $60.