It was a dark and stormy Wednesday night on H Street at the Atlas Performing Arts Center — an entirely appropriate atmospheric background for Ari Roth, in the midst of the last tech rehearsals, one day from the first preview performance and five nights from the opening of “Unexplored Interior.” The play, a world premiere, is the first production of Roth’s new Mosaic Theater Company.
“It’s a little crazy, sure,” Roth said. “We’ve got 20 pages of tech to do tonight, then it’s the first light of day for the play tomorrow, and we’re getting more demand for tickets than anticipated for the opening — so you have to deal with that, and that takes time away from other things.”
The Mosaic Theater Company of DC was conceived as a theater with a serious and big-hearted and big-minded mission: a commitment to “making powerful, transformational, socially-relevant art.” Still, the inaugural offering, “Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth),” by the instantly recognizable actor but first-time playwright Jay O. Saunders, looks both hugely ambitious and very risky.
Roth didn’t bat an eye. “Sure, it is,” he said. “But what better way to open a new theater company in Washington than with a project like this, this wonderful, beautifully and dynamically written play that’s about a terribly important subject, about a genocide which the rest of the world tried hard to ignore.
“Let’s face something: without risk, you don’t have drama, you don’t have theater. Risk is a part of the brand and business plan and so it is with this play. I’m proud to start with this play. It’s a profound and welcome challenge, and it speaks exactly to who and what we are,” he said. “I see it as a kind of valentine to ourselves, an expression of our aspirations.”
Roth is not working completely without a net; there’s a great deal of participation from the D.C. theater community at large. Derek Goldman is directing the play and Serge Seiden, who is completing his work at Studio Theatre, has joined Mosaic as managing director and producer. In addition, Jennifer L. Nelson, formerly with the African Continuum Theatre and the Living Stage Theatre Company at Arena Stage, has signed on as Mosaic’s resident director.
Still, “Unexplored Interior” is, for Washington audiences, unexplored territory — a big play about a 1994 genocide with deep roots in African and colonial history that took place in a relatively short and awesomely brutal time. The subject and the play, in all of its gestating forms, took up parts of some 20 years of Sanders’s life. The result is a kind of birth and culmination, the way plays can be for playwrights, of readings, reading concerts, workshops, long talks (with his wife, actress Maryann Plunkett, featuring strongly as inspiration and sounding board) and a kind of spooky tenacity.
Sanders is a big presence when you meet him, and also a familiar one. “Jesus,” I said when he was introduced, “I just saw you last night.” That moment of recognition speaks to the overly familiar aspects of series television, network and cable both, where Sanders has displayed his considerable gifts in various “Law and Order” incarnations, “True Detective” and, most recently, a recurring role in “Blindspot,” the NBC network thriller about a mysterious girl discovered in New York with her body covered in tattoos.
An Arena Stage company member for a time, Sanders is familiar with the D.C. theater community, including Roth. He exudes warmth, passion and humor, a kind of intensity that doesn’t need a lot of noise. “My son James was born just a month or so before the genocide began, when I became aware of it, and how the world was responding — or not — to it. There was so much death. It was a horror, and I remember watching the news and the UN commander there, he looked so worn. And I think, the proximity of my son’s birth — he’s 21 now — awakened something in me and for years I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“So that’s 10 years. I read everything, I followed what happened and then at first I thought of it as a one-man thing. But you couldn’t tell the whole story that way. So it became something bigger, and you become aware how ignorant people have been about this. It was amazing and alarming how many people did not know about this. People can’t even find it on a map.”
The play eventually emerged, full-bodied, full of characters: the play that made its debut here last Monday. “It’s been a remarkable experience for me, being there, and also having the play performed as a concert reading to mark the 20-year commemoration of the genocide,” he said. “It was streamed live to an audience of survivors and students at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.”
Sanders went to Rwanda in 2004 to attend the 10-year commemoration and “bear witness to the land, the survivors and the remains of those who died. My goal in writing this play has been to honor the spirits of those we turned our backs on. To remember, to hear their voices, to recognize them as us.”