No doubt about it. In Darfur is not an easy piece to watch. That’s to be expected. The “news” from that part of the world is not new. So brace for scenes and stories depicting the horrific violence perpetrated on masses of people in Sudan, the brutality, the degradation, the savagery that hit the mainstream press in bits and incomprehensible pieces over the years.
Brace yourself, yet dare to look at this theatrical account to experience the moments close up from the personal perspectives of its characters, brought to us here with unflinching performances, honoring a carefully crafted new script by Winter Miller and ferociously directed by Georgetown’s own, Derek Goldman.
The story is told from the points of view of several key characters—an aide worker, a New York Times reporter and Hawa, an African Dafuri woman, a fictional composite of several stories that Miller heard while serving as a researcher in the field. And that’s the crux of why the story’s tone works as well as it does– it is anchored in a journalist’s desperate need to tell the story. Maryka, played with dispassionate cool by Rahaleh Nassri, must grapple with the age old ethical dilemma of whether to reveal her source to get an article published. The script makes very clear that Maryka is not unscrupulous or ill-intended. Quite the contrary– she’s the only one who gives a care about the atrocities, and she’s on deadline to deliver the goods to assure international attention with coveted “front page/above-the-fold” coverage. She knows that once she leaves, the world can and will comfortably turn a blind eye to the carnage in the deserts. She also knows that she needs a sympathetic victim who the Western world will relate to and care about and finds what she needs in Hawa, who was brutalized while teaching English to school children. With Hawa’s story, Maryka has struck gold, but does she invoke retaliation on her source to save lives? Miller interweaves the various storylines into a gripping story.
Miller has a gift for dramatic tension and she has planted minefields everywhere in this play. The show opens with the main characters huddled in a beat-up Jeep, obviously running for their lives, terrified of each bump on the minefield encrusted roads and psychological detonators at the checkpoints. Cut between the scenes are feisty interchanges between the journalist and her no-nonsense editor, played with relish by Deidra LeWan Starnes. In these moments, Miller covers stateside cultural territory about why well-meaning Americans haven’t rallied to stop the suffering, with specters of the Rwanda genocide still hovering in their collective consciousness. Miller also questions the sometimes prickly question about the lack of cultural allegiance of black Americans with Africa and ponders their seeming nonchalance about the deplorable conditions on the continent. There are no easy answers, of course, and she doesn’t try to solve the complex issues of allegiance, identification, or racial bias . Instead, she strategically places the nuggets and possibilities and doubts out there for all to see and consider.
The triple-threat casting makes this a powerhouse production. Erika Rose fans, line up and see how she careens from devastating brutality, horrendous pain and suffering, to fateful resignation, to bright-eyed enthusiasm, all while somehow clinging to vestiges of hope and humanity. It’s an amazing performance. Lucas Beck as Carlos, the weary and well-meaning aide worker, gives his all as well, and Jessica Francis Dukes invokes the spirit of the desert with her hushed presence and powerful vocals of plaintive wailing African melodies.
The designers help this production crest and flow in its winding course of telling the story from fractured time perspectives. The sparse and minimalist set reflects life’s piercing and jagged edges along the periphery and even most creatively, in the basic Jeep that plays a pivotal role in the story. Lighting by Dan Covey sets the somber mood and includes a breathtaking starry night. The work of master fight choreographer, Paul Gallagher, was a pervasive presence, and kudos to ensemble players Carl James and Brandon White who took the physicality to excruciatingly difficult levels while commandeering the Arabic language of the rebel militia.
In Darfur is difficult to watch, especially for the squeamish. My threshold and tolerance for depictions of man’s inhumanity to man is unusually low– remember, I had a hard time when Stanley was “flattened” in the children’s story. But considering that this is a depiction of actual experiences, the least I can do is honor the lives and deaths of the victims by being a witness and strive to make a difference. If In Darfur doesn’t stir up a call for action, nothing will.
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
In Darfur plays through April 18, 2010.