Playwright Angela J. Davis is the 2021 winner of SETC’s Charles M. Getchell New Play Contest, dedicated to the discovery, development and publicizing of worthy new plays. Enjoy the following Q&A interview with Davis, in which she discusses winning the award during this year that has been so difficult for theatre and shares the story behind her winning play, AGATHE.
Q: What was your reaction to winning the Getchell Award?
Davis: Coincidentally, just a few days before receiving news of the award, I had been reading through the 2021 winter issue of Southern Theatre, SETC ’s official magazine, and was noticing with admiration how nimbly the organization was adapting to the enormous challenges of the past year. (The 2021 winter issue of the magazine featured, among other things, a promo on the 2021 virtual convention, as well as extremely timely articles on transmitting theatrical works through digital platforms and environmentally conscious alternatives in costume design.)
The magazine was on my nightstand when I received the email that AGATHE had been selected for the Getchell Award. Aside from feeling honored and delighted by the news, my further thought was about how nice it was that SETC was doing such terrific work and selected AGATHE for its annual new play award. Particularly at a time when so many arts organizations are — understandably — going dark for an indefinite duration, I’m very grateful for the honor and also grateful that SETC has kept moving forward and worked so hard to serve the entire world of theatre during this challenging time.
Q: Can you provide a brief synopsis of your winning play?
Davis: AGATHE is inspired by the overlooked story of Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who served as Rwanda’s president for just 14 hours.
In the spring of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were brutally murdered in a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing that the world would later recognize as the Rwandan genocide. The genocide began on April 6, 1994, with the assassination of the country’s president. As a result of a fragile coalition government, the person who was next in line for the country’s presidency – and who was, in fact, the country’s head of state for less than a day – was Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a university professor by training and an advocate for women and girls’ education.
Although she is often omitted or mentioned only in passing in accounts of the Rwandan genocide, and although her voice was literally silenced by the extremists’ takeover of the central radio towers in the hours before her assassination, Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the country’s true president during the first 14 hours of the Rwandan genocide and accomplished a miracle during one of the darkest moments in modern history: the survival of her five children as well as her spirit.
Q: How did you come to write AGATHE? What was your inspiration?
Davis: I have a particular interest in delving into the “other side” of history and in mining for stories that are overlooked. Although Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s story is – to my mind – vitally important and relevant to our own time, she is often overlooked for the simple reason that her story (i.e., her life) ended on the very day that the larger story of the Rwandan genocide began. I was drawn to her example of a forward-thinking woman who, during the early 1990s, was an advocate for women’s education as well as a proponent for ending racial and ethnic barriers to advancement. She was also a scientist – and, thus, a believer in truth against the forces of prejudice and propaganda – as well as a woman of quiet faith and a devoted mother.
I also felt strongly that the character of Mbaye Diagne (who, like Agathe, perished in the genocide) was a tremendous example of heroism, in addition to being a spirited jokester (his humor and charm are well documented and, as dramatized in the play, his quick-witted manner resulted in the rescue of countless civilians). The story brought together several elements that I found both compelling and inherently theatrical, including, most of all: the enduring power of choosing goodness and truth – even in the face of relentless evil.