Tom Smart, Deseret News
Yolanda Wood, left, William Ferrer, Michelle Patrick and Carleton Bluford star in Salt Lake Acting Company's "The Overwhelming."
"THE OVERWHELMING," Salt Lake Acting Company, through Oct. 12 (363-7522 or www.saltlakeactingcompany.org), running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Prior to 1994, you'd be hard-pressed to find many people in the United States who knew much about the small but densely populated central African Republic of Rwanda. Today, however, it would be hard to find someone who doesn't think of genocide, mass slaughtering and unimaginable violence when Rwanda is brought up.

Although the killing of an estimated 800,000 people was an event not even the people of Rwanda could have foreseen, J.T. Rogers' powerful play "The Overwhelming" looks at how those living in Rwanda all knew something was about to happen, but the situation seemed to go virtually ignored by the rest of the world, which either wasn't aware or simply turned a blind eye until such savagery took place that it could no longer be ignored.

Rogers' story is set in the Rwandan capital of Kigali during the weeks leading up to the assassination of the Hutu president of Rwanda, which ignited the start of the 100-day genocide.

In any good production, the playwright will present a balanced presentation of both sides of a conflict without being preachy and challenge the audience to look at how it would have reacted if put in a similar situation. In "The Overwhelming," the audience sees how each side of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict is passionate about its beliefs, but how each is driven by fear and distrust of the other, and how sometimes that fear can lead to severely misguided ways of resolving a conflict.

"He who wishes for peace must prepare for war," says Samuel Mizinga (played outstandingly by Victor Morris), a Hutu and Rwandan government official who believes that sometimes to resolve a problem one needs to "wipe the slate clean and start again."

"The Overwhelming" features an outstanding cast with several standout performances. Victor Mack is the Tutsi doctor accused of being a member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and who would treat Tutsi children while not providing medicine to Hutu children. Morris plays the soft-spoken, well-educated, finely dressed Hutu who wants to preserve his beautiful country and is willing to do it at all costs. Yolanda Wood plays American Linda White-Keeler, who is trying to understand what is happening in Rwanda for her book as she tries to understand her new family and teenage stepson.

Despite the sense of understanding the audience gets of both sides, Rogers in no way offers an excuse for what happened in Rwanda. If there is a message, it's that by doing nothing nothing — because of fear, a feeling of helplessness or a "not my problem" attitude — history will repeat itself. The audience may find some of the characters likable, even the Hutu, but can't help but be unsettled by the fact that 800,000 went on to be murdered. While the characters in the play may feel it's "easier to have an enemy than find a solution," one would hope that after seeing "The Overwhelming" no one should ever give up on the fight for human rights.


(Sensitivity rating: For mature audiences only. Not for children. Profanity, sexual situations, including a simulated sex act, violence.)