For Ephrem Rukundo — a survivor of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and now a graduate student at UC Davis — the arrival of the one-woman play “Miracle in Rwanda” for two special performances this week at the Mondavi Center is particularly meaningful.
“Miracle in Rwanda” features writer/actress Leslie Lewis Sword, who takes on multiple roles to present the story of Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor. Working with director and co-creator Edward Vilga, Sword first performed the play in 2007, and has since presented it more than 170 times, visiting every continent, except Antarctica.
“Miracle in Rwanda” will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre; tickets are $28 general and $14 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.
The play’s visit here is co-sponsored by the UC Davis Office of Campus Community Relations and the Kittleson Charitable Foundation, with additional help from other sponsors; all ticket sales for the Mondavi Center performances will support Rwanda Rising, an initiative of the Kittleson Charitable Foundation that creates opportunities for educational opportunities for Rwandan children who would be unable to continue their schooling without support.
Rukundo’s first acquaintance with the play came when he met Sword in Rwanda several years ago when the American woman was visiting the National University of Rwanda, where Rukundo was a student.
“I was sitting outside a café close to campus, and she was there,” he recalled during an interview Monday. “We started talking, and she invited me to come to the show.”
This encounter with the play — which deals with a genocide in which a million people died, with neighbors hunting down neighbors and killing them — was too much for Rukundo the first time around. Like many Rwandans, he had family members and friends who died.
“I didn’t finish the show that day,” Rukundo said. “But Leslie Lewis Sword and I had a discussion about the genocide; she wanted to know what she should know, so that she could better present what had happened.”
Rukundo is not mentioned in the play, but his observations helped inform Sword’s future performances.
Their paths crossed again last fall, when Rukundo and his Davis friend Craig Reynolds were in the Canadian city of Vancouver. Rukundo needed to take care of paperwork for a student visa, so he could pursue his studies in international agriculture development at UCD, and while he was waiting for the visa to be processed at the American Embassy, he had a free day.
A woman he met asked him “So, are you part of the Rwandan show?” It turned out that Sword was in Vancouver, presenting “Miracle in Rwanda.” Rukundo saw the play a second time — and this time, he was able to watch it all the way through. A conversation with someone from the Kittleson Foundation led to the idea of bringing Sword to Davis to present the play.
Rukundo hopes people who see the play will get a better idea of what occurred — and didn’t occur — in Rwanda in 1994. The world did not intervene to stop the killing; President Bill Clinton later was criticized for not having done more, and the United Nations also took criticism.
Looking at the world now, Rukundo said, “I feel like if people know more about how it happened, next time that can see it coming, and try to prevent it.
“The play also shows how the structure of the whole society was involved: the government, the media, the church — all were related.”
Many Americans are familiar with the Rwandan genocide through the film “Hotel Rwanda,” and have heard about the ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus. But Rukundo advises against drawing too many conclusions based on a movie version of history.
“It was more complicated than that,” he said. “(The play) shows how complex it was. The show will give people an idea close to the reality of what it was like, without them having to go through the whole thing. And I don’t wish anybody ever to have to go through those things.”
The play also deals with reconciliation and forgiveness. “About 1 million people got killed,” Rukundo said. “Obviously, they were not killed by two people or three people. If you look back, many people were involved. If you were taking all those people to prison, it would be huge. If it was revenge, it would be another genocide.”
Rukundo has been talking to friends and classmates, putting up posters and handing out fliers to promote interest in the show. He’ll participate in a panel discussion after one performance.
“Being a story of a genocide survivor, at the end of the day the play shows the hope for the future, through reconciliation and forgiveness,” he said.