The Overwhelming

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When American academic Jack Exley arrives in Kigali, Rwanda, in early 1994 to write about his old college classmate Dr. Joseph Gasana and his work with children stricken by AIDS, Jack is unable to find anyone who even admits to knowing the doctor. Jack, his African-American second wife, Linda, and his teenage son, Geoffrey, become enmeshed in the politics, fear, and personal betrayals that mark the start of a genocidal war—a horror all can sense is coming but no one can comprehend or control.

Babou Cesay and Andrew Garfield in <i>The Overwhelming</i> , directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Royal National Theatre (2006).
<i>The Overwhelming</i> , directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Royal National Theatre (2006).

Read Sample

Act one

Scene 1.
(Friday afternoon. A torrential downpour. Two white Americans, JACK, 40s, and WOOLSEY, a little older, are in a car. WOOLSEY is driving. Their conversation is interrupted by a deafening crack of thunder. They shout to be heard over the storm.)

WOOLSEY
Don’t worry! / These are the best roads in Africa!

JACK
I’m fine! Really! Thank you!

WOOLSEY
Water’s a different story. Don’t ever drink from the tap, whatever people tell you. / That goes for teeth brushing, too. If you didn’t boil it or unscrew it, don’t drink it!

JACK
I know! I’ve done a lot of traveling!

WOOLSEY
You ever had serious diarrhea?

JACK
…I’m not sure!

WOOLSEY
How long you here?

JACK
Just the semester!

WOOLSEY
Well, get ready for it! For the next four months, when you fart, you’ll fart with fear!

(The rain has stopped, almost instantaneously. The sun comes out. JACK looks around as WOOLSEY stares straight ahead.)

JACK
God, that’s incredible! / I’ve been all over the world, but that is…

WOOLSEY
Flick of a switch turns it on, flick of a switch turns it off.

JACK
Amazing.

WOOLSEY
Yes, indeed.

(They drive for a moment. Then, leaping back in where they left off…)

JACK
Brezhnev!

WOOLSEY
Perfect example!

JACK
God, I’d forgotten / about him, too.

WOOLSEY
Exactly my point. Like it never happened.

JACK
Absolutely right.

WOOLSEY
Forty years. / God knows how much money and blood.

JACK
Incredible. Just incredible.

WOOLSEY
Berlin Wall’s down, what, four years? Already ancient history.

JACK
I don’t think my son even knows who Brezhnev was.

WOOLSEY
There’s no enemy now. We won. And yet I miss those fuckers. No, I do. I’m old school, Jack. I can say “Do you want to defect?” and “How much for the entire night?” in ten languages. There’s nothing to push against. We’re just going through the motions. Four years I’ve been here, shuffling papers, picking up tourists at the airport. Why? No one can tell me. What are we protecting? No one can tell me. I don’t know, Washington doesn’t know, you don’t know—do you know?

JACK
You mean—

WOOLSEY
Yeah. Tell me.

JACK
I…No, I don’t—

WOOLSEY
Come on, Jack. Give me a fresh perspective. We’re still strangers; we can say anything.

JACK
(Laughing.)
Two hours in Kigali and you want my thoughts? I teach international relations / not mind read—What?

WOOLSEY
Exactly.
(Off the word “What?”)
“International relations.” With whom? Who are we relating with? Four years, I still haven’t gotten an answer. You find an answer, you let me know.

JACK
You’ll be the first.

WOOLSEY
Anything, really. You find out anything interesting. People. Places. Happenings. You let me know first. Will you do that?

JACK
Sure I can. I’m just visiting.

WOOLSEY
Me, too.

JACK
I just know one person here.

WOOLSEY
That’ll change. You like good beer?

JACK
Sure.

WOOLSEY
The beer here tastes like piss. Makes you thirsty for Schlitz. God, what I wouldn’t give for an ice-cold Schlitz. Let’s swing by UNAMIR before we go to the hotel, see if we can score some Ghanaian stuff.

JACK
The Ghanaians make good beer?

WOOLSEY
Geniuses with beer. This is a fucked up continent, but the Ghanaians, they’re doing all right. You wanna go by the embassy and check in first?

JACK
Why?

WOOLSEY
Why? Why in a country where people are getting assassinated left and right would you want the United States government to know where you are and how to get in touch with you?

JACK
But the Accords are—

WOOLSEY
What about them?

JACK
There’s a ceasefire. There’s no fighting.

Cast Requirements

8 men
3 women

Set Description

Flexible Set

Honors

Finalist: South Bank Show Award for Best Play of the Year (2006). Winner: William Inge Center for the Art’s New Voices award and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation’s Theatre Vision Award (both 2007).

Production and Development History

World premiere: Royal National Theatre, London (2007). American premiere: Roundabout Theatre (2008). Subsequent productions through 2009: Hanger Theatre, NY; Contemporary American Theater Festival, WV; Next Theatre, Chicago; Man Bites Dog Theater, NC; Theater 180, Ontario.