"I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda" is a daunting, almost belligerent title. It promises to be a dispatch from the front lines of horror, an eyewitness account of mankind at its worst. The sheer length and wording of that title defy you to look away.
Sonja Linden's quirky drama ultimately lives up to its bold promise, but in its own sweet time. First it dawdles for an hour with something that the African Continuum Theatre Company's audience probably hadn't entirely bargained on: a dear little love story.
For most of its 90 minutes, "Young Lady" is one of those quaint pieces in which a mismatched man and woman, opposites in every respect except for their fundamental kindliness, tenderly find their way toward one another. Juliette is the young lady from Rwanda, a refugee in London who lost her family in the 1994 genocide. Simon is the rumpled Brit manning the social services office that Juliette wanders into. He's a moderately recognized poet and frustrated novelist now reduced to tutoring refugees trying to write about their experiences.
As the play noodles along, it's impossible not to visualize a BBC version, the kind of impeccably acted project that's simultaneously heartwarming and stuffy. (In fact, it's already been adapted for BBC radio, and the film development process has begun.) Simon and Juliette are nervous in front of one another, and Linden puts their apprehensive subtext right on top.
"Why did I do that?" each says directly to the audience after the kind of awkward statement that prompts agonized second-guessing. They are meant to be adorable, or something, as they bumble and laugh toward some kind of closeness. Is this really going to be a romance? Despite the fact that Simon is married and significantly older, that Juliette is clearly still traumatized, and that their experiences are poles apart?
That's how these kinds of things work, of course, and so there he is, walking her home, smelling the lilacs, pointing so that his arm is almost around her . . . Really, quite hackneyed and not at all what you expect.
It would be unfair to give away the ending, but the cliched waltz stops short of being embarrassing, thanks to Linden's eventual attention to higher matters and to the consistently sharp, understated acting from Michael Glenn and Deidra LaWan Starnes. (Almost everything about director KenYatta Rogers's staging at the small but comfortable Atlas Performing Arts Center is restrained and well judged.) Glenn nails Simon's anxious English bookishness, the egotism and sense of failure that fades as Simon gets wrapped up in Juliette's project. And Starnes is wonderful. Arms folded protectively in front of her, her gaze defiant and wary, Starnes's Juliette seems pitiably alien -- a survivor but still mired in agony. The character is bright and very direct, and Starnes keeps her acting simple, all questions and actions, no filigree.
When Linden's play finally gets around to the inevitable telling of what Juliette saw in Rwanda, Starnes is devastating; at last the writing and the performance are equally vivid and urgent. Linden, herself the child of refugees, spent years doing the sort of work Simon does here. She plainly argues that the story is powerful because it has become personal. The audience has come to care for Juliette, more acute and graspable than vast Rwanda, just as Simon has.
The early going of "Young Lady" might have been more original, but no doubt Linden's essential point (and Simon's all along, as he advises Juliette on her frosty "document") is correct. There's no argument to be made, absolutely no second thoughts that occur during the breathtaking moments when Juliette at last holds the audience rapt and reduces many to tears.
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, by Sonja Linden. Directed by KenYatta Rogers. Set design, Michael Stepowany; lights, Harold Burgess; costumes, Luqman Salim; sound, David Lamont Wilson. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-339-7993 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.