It begins with a voice in the darkness. A woman's voice, with a musical African accent. A voice that tells of the night the president was killed. The night their neighbor came to their door, the neighbor whose daughters she played with. The neighbor who brought the men with machetes to their door. The men who said, "Now is the time for all the Tutsi cockroaches to die."

Mad Cow's current theatrical season has traveled from 1930s Budapest to Depression-era America to medieval Poland, but none of those journeys had the power of their newest production. I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda tells the story of a survivor of that nation's 1994 genocide of the socioethnic Tutsi minority and their sympathizers at the hands of the Hutu majority, a catastrophe that continues to echo a decade and a half later.

The new play by British author Sonja Linden stars Trenell Mooring as Juliette, a refugee who fled the killings, smuggled out of the country only to end up penniless in a charmless London hostel. Trapped in her lonely gray room by poverty and culture shock, she labors to complete her book, a scholarly tome documenting the atrocities perpetrated in her homeland. Juliette brings her nascent novel to Simon (Tommy Keesling), a washed-up writer volunteering for a refugee aid organization, in the naive hope that he'll have it published with a wave of his hand. Somewhat reluctantly, Simon becomes her tutor, urging her to transform her dry, didactic tome into a more personal memoir. Her wrenching battle to make peace with her past, mirrored by Simon's struggle with his distant wife, highlights the healing power of authorial self-expression.

Even as I watched the first run-through rehearsal of the show, the emotional impact of the story was apparent. I've had the pleasure of knowing Michael Marinaccio, a Mad Cow mainstay (who appeared most recently in The Heidi Chronicles and Pericles), since 1998, when we worked together at the late Soulfire dinner theater. Marinaccio makes his Mad Cow main stage directing debut with this production, and he has wisely paired two of the theater's most reliable performers in the strenuous lead roles. As Juliette, Mooring (The Fantasticks, A Lesson Before Dying) must embody the contradictions of a woman torn between worlds; optimistic and cynical, passionate and apathetic. Keesling (The Seagull, Our Town) has the harder job, making sympathetic a man grappling quietly with his petty pains in the shadow of Juliette's unfathomable agony. The show's first act is deceptively light, with the rhythm of a romantic comedy, but the second builds to a climax that evokes searing, unforgettable images.

Forgetting is precisely the problem, since the story of the estimated one million people slaughtered in only 100 days was neglected at the time by a media "too busy covering the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan nonsense," as Marinaccio puts it. Enter Ben Schadrac, leader of the War Survivors Ministries in Winter Haven, who works to make sure the victims and survivors are remembered. He narrowly escaped the violence with his wife and daughters, but lost the rest of his family to the massacre. Now, through his charities, Schadrac matches widows with children orphaned by violence and HIV/AIDS and donates goats to subsistence farmers. As reported last November in the Lakeland Ledger, Schadrac returned to Rwanda last summer to bury his parents' bones and, in an almost incomprehensible act of forgiveness, to meet and embrace men who murdered his relatives.

Schadrac came to be involved in this production through a Mad Cow patron who belongs to his church. According to Marinaccio, "He has been a consultant on Rwandan culture, language and dialect, and an incredible resource for historical information. The most important thing he's done for us, however, was to share his story and feelings, bringing a human face to something most of us will hopefully never truly understand." For research, the cast watched The Healing Journey, a documentary of survivors' stories produced by Schadrac's ministry, and Sometimes in April, an HBO docudrama about the Catholic school where he took refuge during the slaughter. (Schadrac does not recommend the better-known Hotel Rwanda, which he considers misleadingly watered-down.)

When I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda opens, it will be the rare theatrical production whose success cannot be measured by box-office take or reviews alone.

"I truly hope that it touches `viewers'` hearts, and that they take something away from it that makes people's lives better," says Marinaccio. "One of the main reasons for our collaboration with Ben is that I want our audience, if they feel inspired or disturbed by what they see, to be made aware of how they can help through charities like War Survivors Ministries ``.

"I also hope that our audience will, like I've been, be motivated to inform themselves more in the future about events happening around the world, so we can all do our part to keep such horrific events from occurring ever again."


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