Phoenix’s ‘Human Rites’ challenges

By John Lyle Belden

Indy’s Phoenix Theatre has embraced the edgy and controversial since its founding. Still, the new drama, “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, under renowned Chicago director Lavina Jadwhani, hits particularly sensitive subjects in today’s global culture – including how truly “global” a perspective can be.

The three-person cast of Rob Johansen, Milicent Wright and Paeton Chavis are total professionals putting in some of their best work. They help to humanize what turns out to be a contentious, eye-opening and challenging argument.

On an American university campus, Michaela (Wright), the college Dean, calls Alan (Johansen), one of her professors, into her office for a meeting. Through their conversation, we find that they once had a sexual affair, but the topic at hand regards complaints about an academic paper that Alan had one of his classes read – a paper, based on his years of research in Africa, that calls into question assumptions regarding female “circumcision” (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation).

Being an African-American woman, Michaela is appalled at what she reads and challenges the paper’s findings. She also invites a native African graduate student, Lydia (Chavis), with the intent of having her conduct her own study on the topic. The young woman from Sierra Leone is surprised at this and reluctant for reasons of her own. She has much to say, challenging both American academics in the room, as well as all of us watching.

Rozin, who was present for the opening night reception, said the play’s assertions are based on actual research findings. But just as important in this drama is how we as Westerners react to, accept or challenge the data and opinions presented. Lydia’s own perspective calls into question how “civilized” we assume American cultural norms to be.

Since humans are complex creatures, the strong emotions sparked by the characters’ exchange include humor, with quite a few nervous and raucous laughs extracted from their situation. Though you might find yourself with a lot to think about and maybe a bit uncomfortable with those thoughts, this play is worth the challenge – and entertaining in its unconventional way.

Performances continue through Aug. 14 at the 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

Rwandan genocide haunts its survivors

By John Lyle Belden

There can be no forgiveness without confession, and confession not only gives others the opportunity to forgive, but also allows one to forgive himself. This theme is explored powerfully in “Dogs of Rwanda,” a new one-person drama by Sean Christopher Lewis at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

David stands before us, telling us of a rite of confession used in Africa in which the whole village must hear a person’s sin. He informs us we are now his village.

In his teens, David eagerly followed a girl all the way to Africa on a mission trip. They were on the border of Rwanda in April 1994, when one tribe turned on another and tried to wipe it out – every man, woman and child – a hundred-day genocide that killed at least a million people. David and the girl found themselves caught up in it, while aiding a young Rwandan named God’s Blessing. Back home in Ohio, David worked through the traumatic events he had witnessed by writing journals, which many years later he turned into a book.

God’s Blessing saw the book, and sent David a note, saying it did not contain the whole truth.

Resisting the idea that he had to return to Rwanda, David seeks out a forgiveness rite in Hawaii, but it only makes his situation worse. So he goes back to Africa.

“Around here nothing stays dead very long,” he is told as he accompanies God’s Blessing on what David refers to as a “tourism of atrocity,” arriving at a place neither of them want to go, but both need to revisit.

Rob Johansen gives voice to David – and through him, God’s Blessing – in a powerful story inspired by the actual events of 1994 and their impact on the people who survived them. Johansen disappears into the characters, helping us to feel the suffering of their souls and their need for understanding and absolution.

As it gives a perspective on world events even those who saw the news in the ‘90s didn’t know, this play can raise many questions. After every performance (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday) there is a talkback discussion with Johansen and director Bryan Fonseca, open to questions and comments from the audience.

The Rwandan genocide is also a theme in the Phoenix’s next play, “How to Use a Knife,” also starring Johansen, opening Jan. 19.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.