Tamberla Perry (Linda), Rob Fagin and Kenn E. Head as Rwandan politician Samuel Mizinga speaks of keeping his country in his heart to the American family. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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The Next Theatre concludes its 28th season, and new artistic director Jason Southerland his first, with a powerful, thought-provoking Chicago premiere of J.T. Rogers’ “The Overwhelming,” a devastating exploration of the history and culture clashes in the days leading up to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. 

Mr. Rogers offers a prism of varying ideas as to why the massacres occurred, from western visitors to the land, to Europeans and other UN affiliates that now call Rwanda their home, to the native Hutus and Tutsis who could not let go of the past.

Believing that an AP-reported cease-fire is in effect, Professor Jack Exley (Si Osborne) uproots his family from Chicago to Rwanda in order to write a book he desperately needs to get tenure.  Jack hopes to gain insight into an AIDS clinic run by his former college roommate, Joseph Gasana (Dexter Zollicoffer). The latter is a Rwandan native whose presence is, for much of the play, relegated to spotlighted letter correspondence. Jack unwittingly thrusts his family into the mouth of danger. Jack’s son Geoffrey (Rob Fagin), a high school senior, has trouble adjusting to the culture and also to his new stepmother, Linda (Tamberla Perry), an African-American writer. 

Superb ensemble acting permeates “The Overwhelming,” with Kenn E. Head (also excellent in the recent Victory Gardens production “Living Green”) as an incisive but vengeful Hutu; Jamie Vann as Woolsey, an American expatriate and UN contractor; and Christopher Horton Abiel, as Gerard, a servant of the Exley family who befriends young Geoffrey. 

Director Kimberly Senior, last seen at the Next directing “The Busy World is Hushed,” commands her ensemble effectively, allowing a small, necessary amount of chaos to creep into the action, expressing the confusion inherent in the text.

As Geoffrey asks, with exasperation, “Why is everybody here killing each other?”

J.T. Rogers does an excellent job of avoiding laying blame on any individual or group, rather questioning how this atrocity was allowed to take place, and why it may make no sense to some, perfect sense to others. The playwright brilliantly walks a tightrope, showing differing perspectives.

Despite the heavy nature of the play, it is not without humor. In fact, humor resonates throughout the play, with the cast dusting off their comic chops just as effectively as they highlight dramatic tension.

An effective guitar score helps to define the earlier acts, while a droning bass line adds a cinematic element to the third act in riveting sound design by Tamara Roberts. 

While we cannot change the past, J.T. Rogers understands that we can talk about it, hopefully demonstrating how we can learn from our mistakes. 

“The Overwhelming” runs until May 17 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center,

927 Noyes St

.  For tickets call 847-475-1875.