Upon hearing "The Overwhelming," opening Wednesday at Salt Lake Acting Company, is about the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, playwright J.T. Rogers responds, "This is not a play about the Rwandan genocide. It ends before it happens. It's not a history lesson it's a play, there are jokes. A play without jokes is not worth seeing no matter how dark the subject matter."
But Rogers' work, which was given its first public staged reading in 2005 in SLAC's New Play Sounding Series, does take you on a journey into the dark side of global tragedy.
"I followed what happened in 1994, and I was just horrified and amazed, and I realized it would be a powerful backdrop to write a play against," Rogers said during a phone call from New York. "It begs one of the prime theater questions: When you're put in a situation when all options are awful, who are you and what do you do?"
"It's a really wonderful show and a great cast," said actor Victor Morris, "I can't believe I had to come to Utah to work with so many talented people of color," he jokes. But Morris is no stranger to the Wasatch Front, having lived here more than 20 years ago while working at Pioneer Theatre.
"The people are still nice, but not seeing the mall (Crossroads) there is really freaky. But it feels like home, and now I'm doing one of the best roles I've had."
Morris said he plays "the bad guy the one responsible for having as many as 900,000 people killed," a pretty weighty responsibility to build up to every night. "Yesterday was probably the first time I got some decent sleep. I just come home and I read more about what happened then, and then I'm just up, staring. I've learned a lot about detaching."
Disappointed to miss the first day of school for his two daughters back home in Portland, Morris said he uses prayer and meditation to ground himself, "otherwise it's hard to think about, but there's part of me that can't stop reading about (Rwanda)."
Morris, who is also a skilled musician, said that after doing two run-throughs the other day, between shows, he got on TRAX and rode it as far south as he could and then caught a bus heading due east, landing in Cottonwood Canyon.
He took a horn along (similar to a French horn), sat on a picnic table and played for two hours. "I just need to do something physical, a way to shut down my brain."
Rogers' work is familiar to SLAC audiences since the theater has produced three previous plays. Rogers also served as resident playwright in 2004-05, during which he started "The Overwhelming."
"I'm delighted to be back at SLAC. This play really got written because of their commitment to me."
Now "The Overwhelming" has been performed around the world. "I've been extremely pleased. I wrote it thinking, 'Who's going to do a play with a cast of 11 people, most of them black, without a happy ending?' To my surprise, it's been remarkably well-received."
"I have no doubt that people will come," Morris said, "I told someone at the store that I'm doing a play about Rwanda, and within two minutes I had about 22 people in that aisle listening to me. It's eye-opening, the show is eye-opening."Rogers, who is working on two new plays, will be in town for the opening to participate in the post-play discussion following Sunday's matinee performance.
If you go ...
What: The Overwhelming
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North
When: Wednesday through Oct. 12
How much: $13-$34