Through Nov. 29
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
For a long time out actor Desmond Bing tried to hide his African heritage, or at least not bring it to the forefront, he says.
However, since he began playing Raymond in Jay O. Sanders’ world premiere “Unexplored Interior,” the epic story of the 1994 Rwandan massacre seen mostly through the eyes of a burgeoning African filmmaker, all that has changed.
“At the open call audition, I was asked if I could do an African accent,” Bing says. “I spoke like my mother who is from Liberia in West African. I was born in Minnesota, but I guess it was my heritage that landed me the part. Since then, playing Raymond has prompted me to embrace my lineage and culture. I’ve developed a strong desire to visit Africa, something I’ve never done before.”
In “Unexplored Interior,” young filmmaker Raymond returns from New York to his native Rwanda in search of his beloved grandfather following 100 days of terror in which the majority Hutus murdered 800,000 of the minority Tutsis. The powerful drama interweaves stories of romance and friendship between members of the opposing tribes before, during and after the genocide. Ably staged by Derek Goldman and skillfully acted by a top-notch cast, this new work is the impressive inaugural production of Mosaic Theater Company.
“I was 10 when the genocide happened and can remember my parents taking about it and seeing it on the news. But I didn’t know a lot until after we started rehearsal,” Bing says. “Rwandan suffering is a long story. In the 1800s Belgian’s King Leopold II who exploited the regions slaughtered 10 million people. There’s a line in the play that says nobody cared because these people were black. During the 1994 massacre President Clinton was criticized for not intervening.”
Last season Bing played in another heavy work, Theater Alliance’s “Occupied Territories,” a Vietnam War play that questions how bodies, minds and souls are vast territories altered by relentless conflict.
“Too often we shy away from important stories that need to be told because they make us uncomfortable. Processes for both plays were uncomfortable,” Bing says. “But stories need to be told despite the discomfort. My goal was to help share the story the best way I could. … But at this point, I wouldn’t turn down a Shakespeare part, particularly a comedy.”
In first approaching the play, Bing says he saw the subject strictly in black and white, but as he became more immersed in the details, he began to see things more gray.
“Those who carried out the killing were told you’re with us or you die too. It was something they were to do to protect their country and their livelihoods. I was able to see things from a Hutu perspective more than before.”
At 15 his father (also Liberian) died and the family moved to Maryland where he became interested in acting. He pursued a theater degree at the well-regarded University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“I was out in college. At that point I decided closets were for clothes, not me. Still when I’d do a show and friends would say, ‘Oh my god, I couldn’t even tell you were gay. You were so straight on stage.’ ‘It’s acting. I’m acting,’ I’d tell them.”
Sometimes art imitates life. In “Unexplored Interior,” Raymond’s closest friend Alphonse is played by Bing’s real life best friend Freddie Bennett. Also an openly gay actor, Bennett met Bing in college.
Both Bennett and Bing are part of an ever-widening pool of talented, openly gay African-American working actors. Bennett came from New York to D.C. to appear in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stunning production of “The Tempest” last season. Next, along with Bing, he was cast in “Occupied Territories,” and now “Unexplored Interior.”
“Acting with your best friend offers a lot,” Bennett says. “It’s nice when it’s easy and fun, but then we also find new layers of what’s beneath our friendship and what’s beneath the work that we both have to give.”