Our Lady of Kibeho
Cashay Monya and Vimel Sephus in “Our Lady of Kibeho.” Photo by Daren Scott.

Our Lady of Kibeho

Moxie Theatre, San Diego

Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn
May 1-29, 2016 (West Coast Premiere)
Moxie Theatre website

In the 1980s, in an all-girls Catholic school in rural Rwanda, young Alphonsine (Cashae Monya, utterly believable as one in a state of grace) claims visions of the Virgin Mary. The story opens with the shoeless teen awaiting an interview with sympathetic Father Tuyishime (Vimel Sephus), who runs the school, and tyrannical Sister Evangelique (Yolanda Franklin), who bristles that she is not in charge.

Is Alphonsine’s imagination running away with her? Is she craving attention? Is she mad? Is she a witch? Would people be more inclined to believe if she were Hutu and not Tutsi?

Add to this list of concerns a bullying classmate, Marie-Claire (Mallory Johnson), who is given license by Sister Evangelique to inflict escalating pain on Alphonsine, including a candle’s flame, whenever the child enters into one of her ecstatic trances. Eventually, two more girls will share in Alphonsine’s visions of the holy mother: The pious Anathalie (Tyrah Hunter) and, astonishingly, the resolutely skeptical Marie-Claire!

Inspired by real-life events, “Our Lady of Kibeho” is a compelling story of faith, gender politics, Church politics, and ethnic conflict. It’s a lot of moving parts, but fear not: Playwright Katori Hall has written a tightly crafted tale without a single comma out of place, and director Jennifer Eve Thorn does a buffo job with the 15-member cast. This is must-see theater.

Act 2 opens with the arrival of Father Flavia (Steve Froehlich) from the Vatican. He is white with a bearing that harkens to Colonial Africa. He also bears a resemblance to Jesus as portrayed on Catholic prayer cards and art history. A gaggle of school girls (Jocelyn Johnston, Shardae Hayes, Jolize Frank, Brianna Dodson) swoons.

Father Flavia’s task is to determine the authenticity of the girls’ claims, but he doesn’t little to hide his skeptical of “miracles” in a Rwandan village that lacks electricity and running water. Father Tuyishime wants desperately to believe in order to restore his faith, lost eight years earlier when his mother was brutally murdered. His superior, Bishop Gahamnyi (Antonio T.J. Johnson), wants nothing more than for Kibeho to become a second Lourdes.

Presenting the girls’ visions as fact, allows the story line to focus on other dramatic elements, most notably the thin layer of civilization represented by the Hutu/Tutsi conflict. In a climatic scene, the girls communicate an apocalyptic vision of violence and death. Villagers (Taylor Mumin, John Brooks, Kimberly King, Durwood Murray, and Imahri King-Murillo) perform a slow-motion dance wielding their walking sticks like machetes. Lighting designer Christopher Renda and sound-and-special-effects designer Angelica Ynfante utilize the backdrop of scenic designer Dinya Murthy Kumar’s mud-and-straw classroom walls to show the horror that the world will one day come to know as the Rwandan genocide.

Later, as the final scene fades to black, a choked sob is heard. Is it from a character on stage or collectively from the audience?

San Diego,
Lynne Friedmann, based in San Diego, is an award-winning, freelance writer of news, feature articles, and blogs on science, travel, and the arts. Her decades-long passion for theater was sparked as a teen when the Inner City Cultural Center commandeered classroom curricula by bringing classic plays to urban high schools in Los Angeles.