(Charles Isherwood’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/16.)
The teenage girl, a young 17, seems incapable of deception. Her voice rises into a bright squeal when she becomes excited. Her eyes have a limpid clarity that suggests no subterfuge. She is docile and abashed by authority, even though her bubbly nature keeps her long, elegant limbs in constant nervous motion. She doesn’t even wear shoes.
And yet the claims of Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) are outlandish, even in the setting of a Catholic girls school. She says she sees visions of the Virgin Mary, who speaks to her when she is in a trance, filling her spirit with both joy and fear, and telling of events Alphonsine cannot possibly otherwise know.
“Our Lady of Kibeho,” a transfixing new play by Katori Hall that opened on Sunday night at the Signature Theater, explores the turbulent ramifications of Alphonsine’s visions as other girls begin experiencing them, and news of the phenomenon spreads beyond the school into the Rwandan village of the title, in 1981 and 1982. The play has the gripping intensity of a thriller, in part because pricking at the edge of our consciousness throughout is the knowledge of the horror that engulfed the country a little more than a decade after the events in the play take place.