It's difficult to grasp the scale of Darfur's humanitarian crisis. Whether defined as a genocide or a civil war, the conflict in western Sudan has cost the lives of at least 200,000 people, according to the United Nations (other organizations estimate the death toll at nearly twice that), with 2.5 million people "displaced" as refugees.
New York Times researcher Winter Miller's play In Darfur not only draws attention to the Darfur crisis, it also dramatizes the challenge of engaging the West in an African problem. As Little Five Points' Horizon Theatre prepares to stage In Darfur, the creative team strives to live up to the catastrophe's magnitude without alienating audiences leery of heavy subject matter.
Miller wrote the play after accompanying NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof and NBC's Ann Curry on a trip to Darfur in 2006. It fictionalizes real events to depict a journalist (played by Elizabeth Wells Berkes) who meets a displaced Sudanese woman named Hawa (Michele McCullough Hazard) at a refugee camp, and hopes that Hawa's story can bring Darfur to the forefront of the mainstream American press.
On her blog, Miller describes the pitfalls and goals of writing a political "issue play": "Issue plays present an almost endless list of things to avoid: didacticism, inaccuracy, boredom, earnestness, pretension, hypocrisy, and so forth. The list of what to strive for is shorter: action, conflict, consequence, and a seed planted in the audience's mind that leads them to ask, 'What will I do, knowing what I now know?' With any play, what we all want is a compelling story."
Lisa Adler, Horizon's co-producing artistic director, discovered that Miller's issue play read "like a thriller movie." When Horizon considered programming In Darfur, Adler thought, "I want to do the play where they're driving through the sand getting shot at!"
Adler acknowledges that good intentions alone can't prevent people from tuning out news of a distant disaster, no matter how urgent it may be. As In Darfur's director, she watched many documentaries, including three in a row one night. "They're good, but when they started playing the sad music, I felt myself nodding off rather than getting engaged. After a while, the devastation rolls off you – you can only grasp it through the stories. Winter's play gets you inside what's happened through the eyes of someone who's there."
For In Darfur's "research-heavy" rehearsal process, Adler says the creative team interviewed Southern Sudanese refugees, consulted with language experts and studied photos of everything mentioned in the script (much of which won't be on stage). "I live in fear that we'll do something grossly inaccurate. Relationships between men and women in Arab culture are so different that even a simple gesture would be out of place. We're trying to make sure that we're as much in the culture as we can."
Hazard hopes that seeing the play will help raise the audience's awareness as much as playing Hawa has raised her own. "Like me, I knew what was going on in Darfur, but not until you hear about it in an arena like this one does it really sink in. Part of the reason I wanted the role was because I wanted to help turn on a light that wasn't on before."
A talented and versatile actress with experience at many local playhouses, Hazard calls In Darfur "the most emotionally draining piece I've ever done. I'm an emotional person, and most of the shows I've been in, like Gee's Bend at Theatrical Outfit, have emotions all through them, but they're closer to 'Michelle' and what I'm doing now [in my life]. With In Darfur, hearing stories about this woman and what's going on in this country affects you on a deeper level. With one of the monologues, it takes me a good five minutes to come back. I've experienced that a little before, but not like in this play."
Adler has had similarly powerful experiences talking to refugees. She and the cast spoke for an hour to some Darfuris traveling through the United States on a speaking tour, and one told them, "The [Sudanese] government was flying planes against us, and we couldn't get the United States or anyone to send one helicopter to help us."
"You try to imagine yourself in that situation," Adler says. "What would you do, when everybody knows about something but can't do anything about it?" She quietly considers that for a moment, then looks up. "But that's not the play. That's what you find out learning about the play."
Horizon is partnered with the Genocide Intervention Network for In Darfur. "We are planning on working to raise money for the Civilian Protection Program through the Genocide Intervention Network," says Jennifer Dwyer, Horizon's marketing director. "With this program the GI Network hires U.N. soldiers to live in the villages and escort the women when they go to collect firewood and water so that they are not beaten and raped."
The theater tries to do one "global" play a season, Adler explains, and frequently it turns out to be among the year's best. "People should know that In Darfur is not depressing. It's not an 'Oh my God, I'm going to shoot myself' experience. It shows someone who finds a path out," she says.