Hawa was a Darfuri university student/English teacher who had the very unlucky fate of living in the region when the violent conflict between non-Arab rebel forces and the Sudanese government erupted in 2003. Her village was attacked, the men were killed, the women were raped and the entire community was burned to the ground.
It’s a devastating story, one that stuck with playwright Winter Miller, who at the time was working as a research assistant with Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who had written about Hawa as part of his coverage of Darfur. Affected and creatively stirred, Miller applied for and won a grant to write about the crises, and persuaded Kristoff to take her along to the refugee camps near the Chad-Sudan border. After all, you can’t possibly begin to write about the effects of genocide unless you see it with your own eyes, Miller believed.
The result is her 2006 play, In Darfur – a 90-minute, soberly purposeful show that has, as one of its main characters, a woman named Hawa.
But before we meet Hawa and the other two main characters who populate this story, we’re met in the theater entrance by two imposing men in full soldier gear. With machine guns slung over their shoulders and looks that could kill, they demand to see our ID before ordering us to our assigned seats. It’s an effective mood setter for a show about violent military force and civilian suffering. And it’s a distinct check in the win column for director Troy Scheid, who doesn’t always hit her targets in this solemn production.
Not overly concerned with the detailed politics or history of the conflict, Miller’s script drops us into the now and introduces us immediately to our three protagonists as they are escaping Sudan by car. Driving is Carlos (Manuel Abascal Jr.), an Argentinian medic working at a refugee camp in Western Sudan. Beside him is Maryka (Leslie Lenert), a New York Times reporter desperately trying to get the world and her editors to take notice of Darfur and the genocide she knows is underway. Hawa (Yemi Otulana) is in the back. Like her real namesake, she too went to university and speaks English, but why she’s with Carlos and Maryka and why the trio are fleeing at this moment is unclear. Unclear, that is, until we realize that this is the last scene, played first. A teaser for what’s to come.
The rest of the play rewinds to the start and unfolds chronologically, to greater and lesser effect. In the lesser categories are the violent moments that play as mini tableaux rather than wrenching drama. On a sparsely barren theater in the round set, rimmed with a well-worn wooded slat border and an interior the color of sand (Clinton Hopper’s effective design), we watch Hawa’s village get pillaged. Accompanied by ululation, two soldiers run into the small space, beat and kill Hawa’s husband and drag her off to rape her. Lights go dark, lights go dim, lights go up, overly mournful violin music is played and we’re greeted with the aftermath — Hawa and her dead husband on the ground. Hawa’s realization of what’s befallen. Hawa’s response to it. It’s a tragic scene. One we know we should be horrified by. But with the obvious lighting, soapy music and slapdash violence, the whole thing skates too close to the line of the overly staged to be taken seriously. The violence is by turns rushed and labored, as is Hawa’s reaction to it, leaving our heartstrings no choice but to remain unpulled.
Thankfully, what lies past these moments ushers us quickly to the more effective deep end of the story. Hawa ends up in Carlos’s clinic around the same time Maryka makes her way into Darfur looking for a story to tell. It’s the latter that Miller’s really interested in — in this issue play, it’s not so much the genocide itself or the Sudanese politics or even being a refugee woman caught in a warzone that is up for judgment. Instead it’s the media itself that Miller is wagging her finger at. In a series of phone calls to her editor, Jan (Estee Burks), Maryka begs and pleads for the Times to run a story on Darfur but is met with resistance at every turn. Not enough evidence it’s actually genocide and no empathetic human face on which to pin the story make up the gist of the hurdle.
I’ve little doubt that what Miller wants us to feel from these exchanges is anger at the West’s lack of interest in African matters as personified by a media that barely pays attention to the continent unless it’s for ultra-sensational news. And it’s a legitimate beef. But under Scheid’s subtle direction here, we get a bit of a different feel. By allowing Burk to play Jan as tough but not altogether cold and with a sharp sense of what’s needed to take a story to page one, the squabbling between her and Maryka (solidly played by Lenert) makes for a fascinating insider media-room lesson. The sting is taken out of our indignity somewhat and instead we find ourselves listening to and understanding both women’s challenges as they honor the media positions they command.
Of course we know that the face Maryka plans to attach to the story is Hawa's. She’s perfect. She’s educated, she speaks English, she’s lost everything and it turns out she’s pregnant without knowing whether the baby is her husband’s or belongs to one of the six government soldiers who raped her. It’s here that Miller’s second issue concern comes into play. Should Maryka exploit and possibly endanger Hawa for the greater good of getting the story out there? And how much of her desire to do so is based on her own professional ego?
Maryka knows about Hawa thanks to Carlos and the liquor she plies him with one evening, hoping he’ll give her some info to turn into a story. The pair has nice chemistry on set as they talk about their backgrounds and what brought them to Darfur, but really it’s Abascal Jr. who steals the scene and frankly the show. We all hope that volunteer aid doctors in a war zone exude warmth, loyalty, protective instincts and a calming bedside manner, and Abascal manages to deliver all of this and more. From the minute we meet him, we’re drawn to his attractively avuncular manner, which brings great energy to every scene he’s part of.
But even though it’s Maryka’s professional issues that make up the crux of the narrative messaging and it’s Carlos that we’re most drawn to, this really is Hawa’s story and Miller gives the character her due. Played with dignity by Otulana, Hawa speaks to us in monologue throughout the play about her life and what has happened to her. Of note is her beautiful remembrance of each year prior to the massacre. As she scoops sand off the floor, she counts backwards the wonderful years of parenthood, romance with her husband, her teaching, her schooling, her childhood. As the sand piles up and the years recede, we are tremendously moved by all that she was and all that she has lost.
By the time we end up back with the trio fleeing by car, we know what kind of story Maryka has published, what it has meant for Hawa’s safety and why they need to get out of the country as soon as possible. It’s been an intellectual and emotional ride, one that can even make us forgive the rushed and last-gasp, dramatic final moment of the play.
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But thinking about this show and this production in the aftermath, there’s one thing that sticks more strongly than the story or the issues presented, and that’s the language. Miller smartly populates the mouths of her Sudanese characters — innocents, rebels and torturers — with their native tongue — Arabic for sure, possibly other local Sudanese dialects as well. As well she should. There’s no reason to have a story like this shoehorned into the English vernacular simply because it’s playing for a Western audience. Miller knows this and allows the power of the words, be they from soldiers mocking those they beat, rebels trying to recruit fighters to their side or Hawa speaking hopefully to a friend in the camp, to be expressed in their natural state.
To handle these foreign passages, Scheid positions actors not involved in the dialogue around the perimeter of the stage to translate for us line by line in practical fashion. Or, in one even more creative instance, a patient brought into Carlos’s clinic in writhing agony from intestinal worms translates for us on his cot as a Sudanese doctor attempts to explain to Carlos what it is the patient is suffering from.
More than anything, hearing these characters as they would really sound is what brings us close to the story. It’s what makes us feel the evil of their deeds, the passion for their fight and the sorrow of their loss. Maryka may need a front-page story in the Times to make people take notice, and Miller may feel that it’s a sorrow-filled, solemn play that will finally pique our attention, but in the end, give us the language and suddenly the story and the issues raised take on a humanness that none of us can turn away from.
In Darfur continues through May 13 at The Docks Theatre, 1119 Providence. Tickets are Pay What You Can, with a suggested $25 fee.