“Plays like this make me so grateful I was born at the time and place I was,” my friend says as we exit Theater J Saturday night. We’d just seen In Darfur by Winter Miller, and as a Western woman who’d spent the day shopping for frivolities, I felt the cold twist of shame in my stomach. But this isn’t a preachy production. Its simplicity provides the horror, and it’s truthful. These things happen. We ignore them. Then we see a simulation of a woman’s legs being cracked apart like a wishbone, and our silence feels culpable.
This is a hard sell, no denying it, but I urge you to go see In Darfur, playing now through April 18. The play is inspired by Miller’s own trip to refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border, in the company of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. Strangely, its flaws have to do with that prism of experience, as the two Westerners who serve as our entre to this world – an American journalist and an Argentinian aid worker – are simply not as compelling as the Africans they encounter. But I still urge you to see it, for Erika Rose’s central performance as Darfuri refugee Hawa is absolutely riveting.
The action unfolds in 2004, the aftermath of the initial atrocities committed during the conflict between the Darfur rebel groups, the Sudanese government, and the government-armed militias known as Janjaweed. Hawa, a Darfuri Muslim, has lost her entire family and been brutally raped – she is then further brutalized for being raped. Pregnant and wounded, she becomes the central pawn in hardened journalist Maryka’s (Rahaleh Nassri) quest to get Darfur on the front page, blocked by aid worker Carlos (Lucas Beck) in an ethical battle over whether endangering Hawa’s life to get the story out is worth the price she’ll pay.
Frankly, the philosophical arguments between these two characters, and Maryka’s bureau chief (a coldly practical Deidra LaWan Starnes), hinder the play’s movement. The performances are not at issue – rooted strongly in naturalism by the cast and framed by powerful images by director Derek Goldman. It’s just the play itself that can seem off course whenever it strays from its central character’s experience. Whether or not the atrocities in Darfur constitute genocide or not seemed immaterial to me. Such actions are wrong, plain and simple. But I understand – and the play does make clear – that labeling it genocide raises international awareness to the point of necessary action, and of course this responsibility is taken very seriously by Theater J and its mission (as the handout I received upon leaving states, “Change history, so that when we swear ‘Never Again,’ we mean it.”).
But, the play comes alive far more with Hawa’s monologues on her journey through hell, performed with such simplicity – the quiet dignity and anguish of a survivor. She’s well-matched by every heart-pounding entrance by ensemble members Brandon White and Carl James as various truly threatening militia or rebels, and framed by the ever-extraordinary Jessica Frances Dukes as chorus. Dukes is one of my favorite DC actors, and here her moment of realization as Hamida that she will be left behind to a horrific fate is one of the most chilling I’ve ever seen on stage, from denial to shock to panic in a few quick strokes of pain. That’s the story I want to hear, the play I want to see. Cut out the middlemen, and just get to the heart of the experience of these people in their land.
Production design is fittingly sparse, with scenic design by HannaH J. Crowell and Dan Covey’s lighting both evoking heat and sand, and natural costumes by Ivania Stack. Nothing detracts from the purity of the performances, and (at least to me) the dialects seem perfectly evocative.
It’s a fine production by a company that always does consistently good work. It’s also extremely thought-provoking – we were talking about it non-stop afterwards – and it’s haunted me for several days. That alone is reason to see it, debate about it, think about it. And get involved in humanitarian efforts to make sure that the systematic victimization, rape, torture and murder stops.
In Darfur, now through April 18
Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater/Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts
1529 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tickets online or 800.494.TIXS