The Overwhelming: A Play
  • The Overwhelming: A Play
  • The Overwhelming: A Play

The Overwhelming: A Play

by J. T. Rogers

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As a middle-aged American academic who desperately needs to publish a book in order to gain tenure, Jack Exley leaps at the chance to go to Rwanda to write about his old college classmate Dr. Joseph Gasana, who has in the intervening years has specialized in treating children stricken by AIDS. But when Jack, along with his African-American second wife, Linda, and

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As a middle-aged American academic who desperately needs to publish a book in order to gain tenure, Jack Exley leaps at the chance to go to Rwanda to write about his old college classmate Dr. Joseph Gasana, who has in the intervening years has specialized in treating children stricken by AIDS. But when Jack, along with his African-American second wife, Linda, and his disaffected teenage son, Geoffrey, arrive in Kigali in the fall of 1994, they are not only unable to find Joseph, they are unable to find anyone who will even admit to having known the Tutsi doctor. Befriended by both a cynical American diplomat and a perhaps too-helpful Hutu political powerbroker, Jack and his family slowly, then urgently, become enmeshed in the tension and terror, the professional risks and personal betrayals, that they ultimately realize mark the start of a genocidal war—a horror that they can sense but cannot comprehend or control.

In The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers has written a play that is both a brilliantly crafted piece of writing and a tense, suspenseful exploration of one of the great human tragedies of our time. It will have its U.S. premiere off-Broadway in November 2007.

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Faber and Faber
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.36(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Overwhelming

A Play

By J. T. Rogers

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 J. T. Rogers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-974-6



(Friday afternoon. A torrential downpour. Two white Americans, JACK, forties, 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 teethbrushing, 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 cease-fire. There's no fighting.

WOOLSEY: And you know this how?

JACK: From ... everywhere. The BBC, / African news sources. The guerrillas agreed to — the RPF laid down their arms. I contacted people at the UN before coming. They told me things were ...

WOOLSEY: Oh, well, "the BBC" ... (Off the word "UN.") Ho-ho! Sweet Jesus.

JACK: Are you telling me something different? My family's arriving tomorrow —

WOOLSEY: Don't worry. They'll be fine. You'll be fine.

JACK: I'm here for research.


JACK: I'm just writing a book.


JACK: I wanted to come here.


(They drive in silence, looking straight ahead. Then:)

WOOLSEY: Oh. And happy New Year.


(A pool of light reveals JOSEPH.)

JOSEPH: Dear Jack, I hope this finds you well. I am sorry to report that I will be unable to meet you at the airport. If I had any choice in the matter, you know I would be there to greet you, my friend. But I will see you after the weekend, first thing Monday morning at my office. It was an unexpected surprise to read that you have changed your plans and are now bringing your family. But it is wise of you to come a day ahead and make sure everything is in order for them. You have always been cautious, Jack. Here you will find this trait very useful. Unfortunately, the housing I arranged is now no longer adequate, but we will find you something else.

Again, I am so sorry to hear about Carol. This must be a very difficult time for your son. As you say, coming here is not Geoffrey's choice, but I know you will take good care of him.


(Later that day, WOOLSEY and JACK, glasses of beer in hand, sit at a table by the pool of the Hôtel des Mille Collines. Jack is in mid–enthusiastic speech.)

JACK: I would love Geoffrey to have that kind of experience. Like I did when I was his age.

WOOLSEY: So you've been to Africa before?

JACK: No, no. Sweden. Semester abroad. But even that gives you a sense of being the foreign — the, the "other." And since then — Look, through my work, I've done village-level research in Indonesia, Peru. Had the kind of firsthand encounters where you experience — viscerally — life as the outsider. There's an empathy that comes from that. I want him to have that while he's still young enough for it to make a difference. Instill a sense of humility and — yes! — of questioning. God! I don't want to raise another American who doesn't question. I see them in my classes: eighteen years old, this sense of entitlement. The scope of what they take for granted!

WOOLSEY: So you want to take things away from him.

JACK: No. I mean ... well ...

WOOLSEY: Temporarily.

JACK: Yes.

WOOLSEY: For his own good.

JACK: Exactly.

WOOLSEY: Well, you've come to the right place for that. If the world were flat, this would be the edge. And you chose to — You're obviously having a good time, I don't want to be the / drunken expat who —

JACK: No, no. Please. Tell me what you think of this place. Really.

(A WAITER enters and replaces the empty bottles with fresh ones.)

WOOLSEY (to the WAITER): Tu veux me soûler, de nouveau, huh? (Trying to get me drunk again, are you?)

WAITER: Mais bien sûr, monsieur, à quoi est-ce que je sers sinon? (But of course, sir, why else am I here?)

(They both laugh, then, as the WAITER walks away ... )

WOOLSEY: He's dead.

JACK: ... What?

WOOLSEY (gestures off toward the WAITER): His wife was killed last week. Abducted. Raped. Cut up. Someone thought she was an RPF accomplice. They'll come for him. Matter of time.

JACK: Who?

WOOLSEY: Well, that's the million-dollar question, isn't it?

JACK: Why doesn't he —

WOOLSEY: Run? Go to the police? This isn't Sweden, Jack.

JACK: ... How do you know this?

WOOLSEY (takes a swig of his beer): I live here.


(JOSEPH appears again in his light.)

JOSEPH: In late January you will have missed most of the rainy season, and you will find the weather beautiful when you arrive. You must take your family to the Nyungwe Forest while you are here. Bring your tourist dollars so you can buy some ugly trinkets you will never use. Speaking of this, would you please bring me two Michael Jordan T-shirts, size small, in black. This will make me a very popular man.

I am amazed sometimes how little I miss from the States. Except the toilet paper. Just kidding. I cannot wait to begin our work together, Jack. What a pleasure it will be, my friend, to share my country with you.


(A cocktail reception at the French embassy the following evening. A Rwandan WAITER and WAITRESS silently pass food and drink to PARTY GUESTS. Near the back of the room is a well-dressed Rwandan MAN, standing alone. JACK and WOOLSEY stand together, drinks in hand. Nearby, LINDA, a black American in her early thirties, is talking to BUISSON, French government official in his thirties. With them is GEOFFREY, a white American, seventeen. He is less than happy to be here.)

BUISSON: No, I'm positive. I've seen your photo before.

LINDA: Well, it could be. I'm —

GEOFFREY: Denim jacket, hair up in a bun?


GEOFFREY: It's the dust-jacket shot everyone remembers.

BUISSON: Ah, you are a writer!

LINDA: I'm impressed you've even seen / one of ...

BUISSON: Are you a poet?


BUISSON: Novels, then.

LINDA: Not yet.

BUISSON: This is like a game ... Histories of — No, no, don't tell me ... Black America! Histories of Black America!

GEOFFREY: She does creative nonfiction.

BUISSON: I'm sorry?

LINDA: Personal essays. Narratives of self.

BUISSON: Ah! Like Montaigne.


BUISSON: What was it Nietzsche said: "Truly, that such a man has written adds to the joy of life."

LINDA: I couldn't agree more. Montaigne is without peer.

BUISSON: I have read everything of his. If one is French — well, if one is French, and in my profession, one must.

GEOFFREY: "Living on this earth."

BUISSON: I'm sorry?

GEOFFREY: The quote. It's "adds to the joy of living on this earth." From Birth of Tragedy.

BUISSON: And do you speak German, Geoffrey?

GEOFFREY: ... Uh, no.

BUISSON: So you are correcting me with a translation.

LINDA (trying to save the boy): Geoffrey's father and I were just telling him, next year at college he should take German. That's what Jack / studied in ...

BUISSON (staring straight at GEOFFREY ): You see, this is the hazard of translation. An idea is written down. Another man is drawn to it. His mission, to spread this thought deeper into the world. But there is a difference between having words and understanding their meaning.

JACK (gesturing for him): Geoffrey!

(Eagerly taking his "out," GEOFFREY mumbles a good-bye under his breath as he heads toward JACK and WOOLSEY.)

BUISSON (turning to LINDA): What is so often missing is context. And as we diplomats know, not having context is a dangerous thing.

( BUISSON kisses LINDA 's hand and crosses to the Rwandan MAN, as GEOFFREY has joined JACK and WOOLSEY.)

WOOLSEY: So what are you, high school? Eleventh? Twelfth?

GEOFFREY: Twelfth.

JACK (to WOOLSEY ): Very good, Chuck.

( LINDA flags down the WAITRESS for a refill. BUISSON and the Rwandan MAN speak together as MIZINGA, another Rwandan man, in his late thirties and equally well dressed, enters the room.)

WOOLSEY: I've got two sons. All grown up now.

JACK: Really!

WOOLSEY: Graduated. Jobs. One's already having a baby.

JACK: Your work's done, then.

WOOLSEY: My father told me, "When you pay the down payments on their first mortgages, then you're done." So, Geoff —

JACK: Actually, / he prefers —

GEOFFREY: I can tell him, Dad. (To WOOLSEY .) Geoffrey. ( MIZINGA has joined BUISSON and the other Rwandan MAN in conversation.)

WOOLSEY: You play sports, Geoffrey?


WOOLSEY: Foreign language?


JACK: Geoffrey. (To WOOLSEY.) He's fantastic at languages. Just like his mother.

WOOLSEY: Really? Linda told me she couldn't speak a word of —

GEOFFREY: She's not my mother. You know: kinda obvious.

JACK: I mean my first wife. Carol.


JACK: Yes, Geoff's — I mean ... (To GEOFFREY.) Sorry ... (To WOOLSEY.) Geoffrey's / mother.


JACK: Yes.

WOOLSEY: Carol wasn't in your file, Jack.

JACK: Oh. Well. She and I ... divorced years ago.

GEOFFREY: Three years ago.

JACK: Well, okay! Who'd like another drink? (As JACK goes to get refills, LINDA is approached by MIZINGA.)

MIZINGA: Bonsoir, madame, c'est un plaisir de faire votre connaissance. (Good evening, madam. It's enchanting to make your acquaintance.)

LINDA: Forgive me. I don't speak French.

MIZINGA (switching to English): Ah! You are noire Américaine. Forgive me. I mistook you for someone else, equally beautiful.

LINDA: Sorry to disappoint.

MIZINGA: Samuel Mizinga.

LINDA: Linda White-Keeler.

MIZINGA: I'm sorry?

LINDA (a little slowly): Linda White-Keeler.

MIZINGA: This is an American name?

LINDA: My mother's name is White, and my father's —

MIZINGA: Ah! "White" and "Keeler." Of course. You said "White-Keeler," and I thought —

(He draws his thumb across his throat as WOOLSEY drifts over to them.)

WOOLSEY: Linda, Sam's in the government. One of the ones with all his marbles.

LINDA: Really?

MIZINGA: Simply serving my country.

WOOLSEY: He's working on the BBTG.

LINDA: The ... ?

WOOLSEY: Sorry. (To MIZINGA. She's fresh off the plane. (To LINDA.) Broad-based transitional government. Now that the shooting's stopped.

MIZINGA: And how is the golf coming, Charles?

WOOLSEY: Same old, same old.

MIZINGA: Mr. Woolsey is famous here for how far he can hack the ball. But his putting (as he mimes doing so) is a painful thing.

WOOLSEY: Thank you, Sam. Always good to be loved.

MIZINGA: We all play with him, of course. After all, what man does not like to win?

WOOLSEY (as he moves back toward GEOFFREY): Happy New Year, Sam.

MIZINGA: And you, Charles.

(As WOOLSEY and BUISSON cross paths ... ) BUISSON (extending his hand): Bonsoir. Vous serez toujours le bienvenu chez nous. (Good evening. You will always be welcome here.)

WOOLSEY (brushing past): Great.

MIZINGA (to LINDA): I am told you are a writer.

LINDA: That got around quick.

MIZINGA: I confess, reading is my weakness. Balzac is my favorite. I have read most of him.

LINDA: Really.

MIZINGA: The sweep of his work. That one man could capture an entire people. Quite magnificent. Perhaps you will write about us.

LINDA: Yes! That's — I mean, I'm here to ... Sorry. Half my brain is still in the States. Yesterday I was in two feet of snow and a down parka. I'm still adjusting to being here in paradise. I hope that's not offensive.

MIZINGA: Yes, terribly offensive. I shall have to have you shot. (Pause.) That was a joke.

LINDA: Ah! When my husband's son and I flew in today, the mountains were —

MIZINGA: Like the Alps, people say.


MIZINGA: Rwanda is called the Switzerland of Africa. Or perhaps it should be the other way around. I think you will find we are like the Swiss. Organized, efficient. People take orders here very well. This is why it is so important.

LINDA: What is?

MIZINGA: That our leaders have the best interests of this country at heart. There are many of us here who are working very hard to make sure this is the case. We cannot afford to go backward.

(JACK returns to WOOLSEY and GEOFFREY, drinks in hand.)

WOOLSEY: So, Geoffrey, what do you do? Twelfth grade, the world wide open.


JACK: Geoffrey's actually the district champ in extemporaneous speaking. It's where you draw three topics from a hat. You pick one — global warming, race relations — you get five minutes to prepare. Then you try to persuade the judges to your point of view. Geoffrey came in first this year. The entire school district.

WOOLSEY: What did you speak on?

GEOFFREY: Organic farming.

WOOLSEY: You won with a speech on organic farming?


WOOLSEY: Sort of a "Mother Earth good, pesticides bad" kind of a thing?


WOOLSEY: Your parents and Linda must be very proud.


WOOLSEY: Terse is good. Terse will get you far in life. Look at me. I ask too many questions. I got sent here.

(LINDA and MIZINGA, in midconversation.)

LINDA: Essays, about my personal experience here.

MIZINGA: To convey this to American readers?

LINDA: Yes! It's a much larger magazine than those I usually — So I'm thrilled. And intimidated.

MIZINGA: I am sure your work is excellent.

LINDA: No. Thank you, but what I mean is, being here, for the first time ... From what I've learned, I have ancestors from the Great Lakes region. They were taken from here in chains. I'm from here.

MIZINGA: Then you must feel a bond with —

LINDA: A responsibility. I don't want to be another tourist waxing lyrical about "Mother Africa." I want to really see this place. Ask hard questions. Write something that opens eyes and instills an interest. And now I'm hearing myself, and I sound like some / sort of ...

MIZINGA: You are being honest. And for that, I thank you. I hope you will allow me to be of service. To your writing.

LINDA: That would be ... thank you. Yes.


Excerpted from The Overwhelming by J. T. Rogers. Copyright © 2007 J. T. Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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