‘Miracle In Rwanda’ is a play that is based on the true story of New York Times’ best-selling author, Immaculee Ilibagiza, as told in her book, ‘Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst The Rwandan Holocaust.
Published in 2006, the book is an autobiographical work that details the author’s miraculous survival during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Created and performed by New York-based story teller, Leslie Lewis Sword, (co-created by Edward Vilga), ‘Miracle in Rwanda’ has been staged for over 15,000 theatre goers across five continents. Lewis created the play in 2007, after travelling down to Rwanda to meet Ilibagiza in late 2005. She stars in the current global tour of the production, which will culminate in off-Broadway engagements at the Lion Theater in New York City from April 4 to 21.
The run of the play coincides with the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that is being marked this year.
Acclaimed Rwandan actor, singer, poet and social justice activist, Malaika Uwamahoro, assumes the play’s lead role from Leslie, who has performed the play more than 100 times before global audiences.
“I heard Immaculee speak in 2005 and I thought, ‘I want to tell that story –I’m going to write a play about this woman’. Her story was so compelling,” said Leslie Lewis to The New Times via email.
She described her experience performing the play before global audiences as a “gift”.
“The show was invited to perform on five continents, to over 15,000 theatre goers. The highlights include Stanford University, University of Mumbai, and the National University of Rwanda, in Huye District.”
Asked why she seconded Malaika to replace her as the play’s main character, Lewis replied: “Malaika is a brilliant performer, and it just worked out perfectly for her to take the role. Malaika brings so much to this play. I would love for everyone in Rwanda to see her perform it. The story itself has so much impact; Immaculee’s ability to use the power of her faith to transcend her painful reality while she was in hiding, gives hope to the world.”
For her part, Malaika was elated on receiving the news she had been cast for the role.
“I was so very e-x-c-i-t-e-d! This was going to be my first solo play and I knew the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza very well. When I was 19, my mother bought me her book, ‘Left to Tell’, and I loved her story when I read it. Then, some years later, in 2014, I was invited to perform a poem I wrote, ‘Rwanda Today’, at the United Nations in New York City, and I met Immaculee for the first time,” she said in an email interview.
George Drance, the play’s director, also expressed confidence in the choice of Malaika, a former student of his at Fordham University.
“When Leslie told me that she would be passing on the role to someone else, Malaika was the first person who came to mind. She was always a strong performer in her work at Fordham. I knew she had the strength, the dedication, and more than anything else, the soul to tell the story of Immaculee. There were some who said we needed a star, and I said wait until you meet Malaika. She is a star!”
How did you end up landing the role of lead character in ‘Miracle in Rwanda’?’
Leslie Lewis, the playwright and a producer, contacted me in the summer of 2018 and told me she’d written a play inspired by Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza and Steve Erwin. She said that she was interested in having me audition for a production that was being produced off-Broadway in New York City in 2019. It is a beautiful play and in the role that Leslie performed throughout the world, the actor plays nine different characters. Using the script of the play, “Miracle in Rwanda,” I made a “self-tape” in December of last year and submitted it to Ms. Lewis. In January, I was performing in Cartography in Washington, D.C. and it was then I received the news that I was selected for the part. It was the greatest news and a gift for me to begin 2019.
What are the preparations like ahead of your upcoming off-Broadway debut showcase performances?
I have six to eight hour rehearsals six days a week with my director and playwright and co-creator, Leslie Lewis. Even when I’m not in rehearsals I am reading and studying Immaculée, forgiveness, praying the Rosary, and just deepening all of the characters that I play. I go to the gym four times a week, I work with a personal trainer two times a week, and I see a physical therapist once a week to work on strengthening myself, particularly my knees. The ‘Miracle in Rwanda’ play is a very physical and active role that is performed without an intermission. I am a vegetarian so I eat very healthfully, but I give myself one day per week to eat what I wish and my splurge is often a slice of pizza or an Oreo cookie.
‘Miracle in Rwanda’ is an adaptation from Immaculee Ilibagiza’s award-winning book, ‘Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust’, which details her miraculous survival of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Assuming that you have read the book yourself, what impact did it have on you?
Oh yes, I have read the book and the impact it had on me was enormous. I thought about how very different the experiences we had of the Genocide were. I thought about what was happening since she couldn’t see or hear anything inside the bathroom. I thought about how she grew closer to God during that time. At this time, I was just four years old and my clearest memory was that of my grandmother sitting around the radio and crying. I knew something was happening but too young to understand.
What recollections, if any, do you have of Ilibagiza?
As I mentioned, we met at the United Nations for the commemoration in 2014 and I performed a poem I wrote, “Rwanda Today.” Meeting her was so profound and I was filled with emotion and happy tears. She gave me the most beautiful hug and I hugged her back, both of our eyes welled up as we shared a mutual understanding that needed no words. I felt like I knew her; she felt like home.
You are working with so many people from the US on this project. Have you also benefitted from any help/support from back home in executing this project?
Oh yes, very much so. I got help and positive support from everyone at home in many ways and I was especially grateful for the recommendations and support from Rwanda that ultimately made it possible for me to study and work in the US.
Any plans to have a staging of ‘Miracle In Rwanda’ back home any time soon?
I really hope so. I know people at home would love to see this beautiful play. I would love for that to happen. It’s all in the hands of the producers!