Taking Darfur to the stage as it fades from the headlines

NEVER FORGET: Erika Rose (Hawa) rehearses a scene for the play by Winter Miller, whose work is known for its emotional truth.
NEVER FORGET: Erika Rose (Hawa) rehearses a scene for the play by Winter Miller, whose work is known for its emotional truth. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Fiona Zublin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Estimates vary, but some hundreds of thousands of people have been slain in the Darfur region of Sudan. The civil war has displaced millions, who are forced to live in refugee camps where gang rape is endemic and disease runs rampant. In 2003, government-backed gunmen belonging to nomadic African Arab tribes began exterminating villages of African farmers across the region. You can think of it as a conflict between Africans and Arabs, between farmers and nomads, between government and citizens -- when you think of it at all these days. The facts are complicated, the emotional truth even more so.

But emotional truth is what Winter Miller does. She's the author of "In Darfur," a play that seeks to put a face and a name to a genocide that has faded out of the headlines of late. The play, directed by Derek Goldman, opened at Theater J on Wednesday.

Miller, 36, is a playwright -- but in 2004, she found herself working as a research assistant for Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist now known for his investigative work on Cambodian sex trafficking, child marriage and, of course, the genocide in Darfur.

"I was always fact-checking stories about Darfur," Miller says, "and I thought, 'What can I do about this? I know about it. A lot of people don't know about it. Nick has his columns to write. How can I not be a bystander?' "

So she did what playwrights have always done -- got a grant and started writing. "In Darfur" tells the somewhat-fictionalized story of Hawa, a Darfuri woman who is gang-raped by Janjaweed militants and left to die in the desert. She finds her way to a refugee camp, where aid workers and journalists are hamstrung by regulations and editors.

The piece was commissioned through the "Two-Headed Challenge," a grant from the Guthrie Theater and Playwrights' Center, which sponsor collaborations between a playwright and someone who's not a playwright -- in this case, Kristof. Miller had worked for him before leaving to get a master's in playwriting at Columbia University. She returned after receiving the grant, to learn more about Darfur and to get herself there.

"What I had was this real academic knowledge of what was going on in Darfur," Miller says, "but I didn't have a real sense of, 'What does it smell like on the ground, what is the dust like -- what does it feel like to be there?' I asked Nick if he would take me with him. . . . I was like, 'Nick, how can I write this play without being there? You don't want me to be an armchair playwright, do you?' "

Kristof says he hesitated. "It didn't seem necessarily the most sane thing to do," he says. "To take a person into Darfur who didn't really have to go. I told her that the condition was that her play had to be made into an absolutely best-selling movie that tens of billions of people would see."

That hasn't happened yet. Despite Kristof's protestations, Miller flew to Africa with him for a week in March 2006. She was researching not only refugees, but also the journalists and aid workers in the camps.

She had the backbone of a story already -- Hawa, an English teacher, is based on a real woman whose rape and pregnancy were reported by a doctor. But because the Sudanese government denied that mass rape of villagers was occurring, the woman was arrested and charged with adultery. Miller invented a burned-out aid worker and a New York Times journalist whose desire to protect Hawa is pitted against a need to tell her story to the world.

Kristof says the play "conveys the realities of Darfur, the difficulties that aid workers or journalists sometimes get into, the sometimes-strained relations among the different groups, and the tension between the desire to blow the whistle and call attention to a problem and the risk that that whistle-blow will then endanger a particular individual. These are tensions that foreign correspondents and columnists abroad face all the time."

"Nobody gets off the hook," Miller says of her characters, each of whom struggles with a major ethical dilemma -- even Hawa, whose unborn child may be the product of rape. Grim as the subject is, the play shies away from despair. "What you find on the ground," Miller says, "is gallows humor. When you're surrounded by death and trauma, what do you do to get by?

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