Fatu Sankoh doesn't talk about the past. She has learned to change the subject, or say nothing at all. Fatu is 15 years old, and something of a miracle for a girl from Sierra Leone. She giggles sweetly with her girlfriends at Annandale High School, and talks about pop stars (Usher, Ashanti, J. Lo) and boys (only educated and respectful ones should come calling) in the musical cadence of a country thousands of miles away. She could also talk about rebel gangs mad on cocaine, about amputations, about hiding under a bed next to the bleeding body of a classmate, while gunfire crackled and popped outside. But when it comes to the past, she has learned to keep her mouth shut.
When Dereen Pasha speaks, it is barely louder than a whisper, and solemn, even if he is talking about his favorite cartoons -- the Simpsons, SpongeBob, Tom and Jerry. But listen, and he may talk about the home he left for Centreville, Va. He is from Kurdistan, he says. Because to say he grew up in the Kurdish region of Iraq means explaining he hates Saddam Hussein. Which means explaining how his family and friends were gassed, executed, driven to starvation hiding from Hussein's troops in the mountains. Which probably means explaining how his father died, shot in front of him by Iraqi assassins. Which is too much for a 15-year-old boy to explain over and over again, even one as patient and as solemn as Dereen.
Tonight, though, they won't shrink from ugly memories. They will be loud. They have been practicing for weeks, Dereen raising his voice until it echoes at the back of the deep theater, and Fatu, aware of her strong accent, closing her mouth deliberately around each word: "home" (watch that H) ..."war" (don't forget the R) ..."afraid."
Dereen and Fatu wait just offstage at George Mason University's Theater of the First Amendment with three other teenagers: Yarvin Cuchilla, from El Salvador and Fairfax; Abdul Hakeem Paigir, from Afghanistan and Alexandria; and Awa Nur, from Somalia and Herndon. Playwright and director Ping Chong gathers them close.
"So this is your first big audience tonight, your first real audience," he says, with a reassuring grin. "Are you scared?"
"A little," Fatu says with a look that says, "A lot." Awa nods. Abdul grins anxiously.
"What did I tell you to do if you're nervous?" Chong asks.
Everyone takes a deep breath.
For 10 days in December, these five local teenagers starred in an arresting documentary theater production called "Children of War." The precarious lives they dramatized onstage were their own: five ghostwritten autobiographies, woven together, and then read by their real-life subjects. The show's principal backer was not some deep-pocketed producer, or an arts foundation, but the Center for Multicultural Human Services, a nationally known nonprofit in Falls Church that assists Northern Virginia's vast immigrant and refugee community.
The project grew out of a work Chong staged a few years ago at Washington's GALA Hispanic Theatre, one in a series called "Undesirable Elements." The series, which has been produced in different locations around the country and abroad, is oral history as theater. It tells the story of a group of "outsiders," frequently immigrants, who live in the area where the show is staged and who perform the roles themselves. The show's goals are openly social as well as artistic, aiming to teach a community about itself by shining light on the disparate cultures and experiences of the people who make it up.
Staffers from the Center for Multicultural Human Services, in the audience at GALA, were impressed. In the fall of 2001, the center's director, Dennis Hunt, broached with Chong the idea of commissioning a new play, like "Undesirable Elements" but with a focus on local kids and the psychological damage they have suffered as a result of war.
"Kids don't want to just sit in a room and talk," Hunt explains. "We wondered, could we use some kind of drama technique as therapy?" That notion was hardly revolutionary; New York University, a pioneer in the field, has given specialized degrees in drama therapy since 1984. But what Hunt proposed was something more ambitious: While the "Children of War" project might sound a lot like drama therapy (and like a newer technique called testimony therapy, which has generated interest among clinicians since the late 1990s), the center believed that "Children of War" could also attract a paying audience on its artistic merits -- and in doing so, educate Washington audiences about the difficult lives of the refugees in their midst. As it turned out, the balance between art and healing was neither easy nor obvious.
On a sunny morning in July, Kacie Fisher, a clinical social worker at the Center for Multicultural Human Services, and Andrea Zalzal Sanderson, a counselor, walked into a small room just past the center's reception area, where a polyglot crowd of local residents lingered, chattering quietly in this and that. Fisher and Zalzal Sanderson closed the door. A tall stack of binders, fat with paperwork, had taken over the desk. In a corner sat a dream of a dollhouse, a Victorian mansion in pink and white.
Fisher is tall and athletic-looking, a bit Californian -- though she was born in India and grew up in Indonesia. Zalzal Sanderson has kind brown eyes and an easy manner. Together they were responsible for finding Chong's performers: young people traumatized enough to serve the project's educational mission and reap some therapeutic benefit, yet psychologically sturdy enough to confess to horrifying personal histories in front of hundreds of strangers.
Both of them had doubts about the assignment. "I reacted a lot like the children that we've approached," said Fisher. "It sounds great, and I love the idea of increasing awareness and sensitivity to cultural difference. But then I get very nervous about people revealing stories. Once you open that door, especially if you have not had prior treatment, you don't really know what's going to come up for you." As public education, they agreed, the project was inspired. As therapy, it was tricky.
The center had eliminated the most obvious pool of candidates for the project -- its own clients. In order to recommend kids who had received counseling there, Zalzal Sanderson and Fisher would have had to reveal information shared in confidence. Liability issues spooked the center's lawyers. And kids, particularly victims of trauma, are usually overeager to please their therapists, raising the possibility that they would volunteer for the wrong reasons. "We have to be really careful, as authority figures, or as experts, or as older people, or as clinicians who presumably have some power over children, to not look like we're taking advantage of that," Zalzal Sanderson said.
So she, Fisher and Nadia Shek, an intern from the College of William and Mary, called and e-mailed middle schools and high schools across Fairfax County and the District to come up with a list of candidates. "The number one reason people turned out not to be a good fit was that parents feared getting in trouble with immigration services," Fisher said. "You can go to school here legally and not be a legal resident or have legal immigration status."
If the parents were legal, and the kids were interested, they met Zalzal Sanderson and Fisher at the office. "First we usually sat with the parent alone and asked if they had any concerns," Fisher said. "Then we met with the children individually. We videotaped them and interviewed them. And they wrote a brief summary of their life experiences."
"I've had a couple of these interviews where I've thought, It's amazing that you're sitting here," she said quietly, "because you should probably be dead."
By the end of June, they had screened about 80 kids.
They looked for cues that the teenagers might buckle under the psychic strain of performing. Zalzal Sanderson ticked off the signs of trouble: "flashbacks, or feeling numb, or feeling disconnected, or having this feeling of disreality, or having severe nightmares, or having real functional impairments." In cases where kids seemed too troubled for the project, they were referred to therapists. "We don't just interview them and say, No, you're not right, wouldn't be a good fit, see you later!" she said.
Throughout, they tried not to sugarcoat the project. "We'll ask them very directly, You're going to be up in front of a lot of people having to talk about some very painful things," Fisher explained.
"Can you imagine the lights being on you, and it being so dark that you can't see the hundreds of people who might be there? How does that feel?"
Ping Chong follows his grin into a room. His smile is bright and familiar, just right for the kids he is about to meet for the first time. His gray hair is shaved close; he is wearing a lime-green knit shirt, bunched above his tan forearms.
Chong extends his hand to Ibrahim Sankoh and then to his daughter Fatu. Fatu's head is tipped shyly. She is wearing dark jeans with red stitches, a bright red shirt ruffled around the neck, and slinky red patent leather sandals.
Fatu's father talks first, and spends nearly an hour telling Chong about his decision to leave Sierra Leone for Virginia in 1991, without Fatu; about deadly factionalism; about his first glimpses of skyscrapers and frozen food. Then it is Fatu's turn, as her father waits outside.
Fatu's face is still, but her hands give her away: They fuss nervously with a small change purse, turning it over and over in her lap.
Chong begins every interview the same way, at birth. Fatu tells him where she was born (Freetown), when (June 20, 1987), how she came to possess her name (it was her grandmother's), and what the world outside was like when she came into it (rainy). Like all the kids Chong interviews, she starts slowly and vaguely. But by the time she gets to her grade school years, she is a teenage girl talking at top speed.
"Slow down, slow down!" He waves his arms like he's stopping traffic, and grins. She smiles back sheepishly.
Chong's questions come in narrow, and narrower. "What did you eat at school?" he asks. "Beans and bread," she answers. "What kind of beans?" he presses. She looks at the ceiling, searching for the word, and then gives up: "The brown one that has the dot in the center."
"Generalities are useless to me, I need the specifics," he explains later. "I need to get the picture." After hours of interviews with each of the teenagers, he will condense and rewrite their stories into a script. The details are what will allow him to put words back in the mouths of his "actors" and have them ring true.
When Fatu explains how she and her relatives fled a rebel assault on Freetown, for instance, Chong asks unflinchingly, "Did you see a lot of dead bodies on your way?" There were so many, she says, that she had to jump over them. Once, she stumbled, and her foot was buried in a rotting body; when she pulled her foot out, she says, her shoe got stuck, and she had to leave it behind.
Chong's project manager, Sara Zatz, transcribes most of the conversation, longhand. After more than two hours, her face is drawn, her eyes red.
"That's enough for today," Chong says. Fatu smiles.
"How do you feel?" asks Zalzal Sanderson, who is observing the interview.
"Relieved," Fatu answers. It's just the answer the counselors were hoping for. With her dramatic story and calm demeanor, she's in the show before she's out the door.
Abdul Hakeem Paigir is 14, an eighth-grader at Holmes Middle School in Alexandria. Skinny and moon-eyed, in jeans, a T-shirt with a graffiti-style cartoon and a Georgetown hat, he could pass for younger than that. He smiles disarmingly as he leads his mother through the door. Everybody smiles back.
It's impossible not to smile back at Abdul. "He's such a cute kid," Fisher says. And he is a natural class clown, ready with non sequiturs about the time his confused little brother tried to order a pizza by dialing 911, or the flight attendant he wanted to marry on his flight to America ("the whitest woman I had seen"). He says he wants to be a fighter pilot when he grows up.
In 1993 Abdul's family fled the tribal wars of Afghanistan for the refugee camps of Pakistan, where they lived, ostracized, for the next eight years. They finally received their visas to come to America on September 10, 2001. One day's delay at the U.S. consulate, Abdul's mother explains through an interpreter, and they would probably still be refugees in Pakistan.
"I will never forget when Abdul came in for the first time," Fisher says later. "They'd only been in this country for seven months. Abdul had a U.S.A. flag T-shirt on, and his dad wore a U.S. Capitol shirt. Some of these families are trying so hard to acculturate."
For Abdul, that effort has translated into an unmatchable enthusiasm for school. "He's struggled at school, both academically and with learning the language, and he's had conflict with other students who have singled him out, picked on him," Fisher says. And yet: "This child, he told me, 'I don't like Saturday and Sunday because I don't get to go to school.' " He tries to sleep as late as possible, he tells Chong, so that Mondays will come sooner.
Abdul says he made friends quickly in his new surroundings. "Did your new friends have questions about your country?" Chong asks.
"What did you talk about, then?"
"Jackie Chan." Chong cracks up.
"What about music?" he asks.
Chong looks skeptical. "What did your friends think about that?" he asks.
"They think he looks like a girl." Chong laughs again.
"What are some new things you've learned to eat?" he asks. He asks a lot of questions about food, one of the simplest but most profound examples of cultural adjustment.
"Pizza," Abdul says, and then thinks a moment. "Pork." His mother's head whips around, and she stares at her Muslim son. Abdul smiles weakly. He has confessed too much.
"Children of War" would premiere 10 years after Chong wrote and staged "Undesirable Elements" for the first time. "I understood, by seeing the reaction of audiences over the years, the power of simply telling," he says. "I have had more standing ovations for [the 'Undesirable Elements' series] over the years than for anything else."
Chong is a well-known figure in the New York avant-garde art scene. He got his start there in the early 1970s, when multimedia artist Meredith Monk invited him to join her company. Since then he has produced a series of installations, video art and more than 50 works for the stage, including a quartet of historical pieces in the '90s that explored tensions between East and West -- "Deshima," "Chinoiserie," "After Sorrow" and "Pojagi." The Kennedy Center will stage "Obon," one of his puppet theater pieces inspired by Japanese ghost stories, this summer. That body of work has earned him two prestigious Obie Awards, including one, in 2000, for sustained achievement.
"The thing that I find so amazing about him is my inability to categorize him," says Susie Farr, executive director of the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, where Chong is spending the spring semester as an artist in residence. "He never creates works that you can sit back and let wash over you," she says. "They touch tender and risky places in people's hearts. But he does it with such care that it makes the audience a part of it, as opposed to putting up barriers against it."
Most of this work, Chong says, shares a common theme with "Undesirable Elements": otherness. "My entire career has been built around it," he says. Not surprising, perhaps, for a child of immigrants, who recalls the Chinatown of his youth as a discrete world within New York.
In "Undesirable Elements," the performers, always nonprofessionals, greet the audience in their own languages. Then they launch into a history lesson. They call out dates chronologically -- 1867! 1921! -- skipping from country to country to emphasize a shared world history. Gradually, that becomes a history of grandparents, of mothers and fathers, and finally, of their own lives. 1987! 1991! Their individual stories become one shared story. They take turns remembering a moment aloud, while the rest of the cast, in a kind of call and response, act out the roles of their parents, their friends or their tormentors.
"It's a testimonial, but also a ritual," Chong explains. "All the participants learn something about each other. It's a communal ritual of connection." And, he believes, a way to do good through art. "It is frustrating sometimes to make art and feel like it is superficial. I'm not a politician, I'm not a social activist," he says. "As an artist, I want to feel like I'm doing something socially useful."
By the end of October, Chong has settled on his performers and finished the first draft of a script. This is how it works: First, he studied the notes from hours of interviews with his cast members. Then, mostly paraphrasing, but occasionally weaving in quotes or near-quotes, he wrote a monologue for each one. Finally, he chopped up everyone's lines and put them in order so the narrative would proceed chronologically.
It has been a bit of a challenge writing for a cast of all kids for the first time. "Adults have more access to their memory," Chong explains. (When Abdul told Chong his family's apartment building in Kabul, which was bombed, had been about 50 stories tall, his mother corrected him through her translator; it was actually eight.) And Chong is worried about audiences understanding Fatu's and Abdul's accents when they read their lines. He has written Abdul's lines in simpler English than the rest of the script, and he will probably have to rewrite a few of them if his youngest performer has trouble.
Chong has picked the five kids for the show: Fatu, Abdul, Dereen, Yarvin -- a senior at Mountain View High School, an alternative school in Centreville, and the mother of a little girl -- and Awa, a sophomore at Herndon High School. There have been only a few tough calls. Yarvin's history is less one of war than of abuse and neglect. But she is a remarkable young woman, and her trauma is not so unlike that of the other teenagers, so Chong decided to expand "Children of War" to include "war in the home." Another teen, raised amid guns and hard drugs in the roughest corners of Washington, was passed over because he still lives too traumatic a life, Chong felt, to mesh with the tenor of "Children of War," which focuses on resolving traumas in the past.
Probably the most difficult decision involved adding a sixth, adult performer, Farinaz Amirsehi, a counselor at the Center for Multicultural Human Services, and an immigrant from Iran with her own harrowing history. Including Amirsehi solved a problem that had been troubling Chong -- how to put the stories of his five teen performers in the larger context of the center's work with war-traumatized children.
On the first day of rehearsal, a warm Sunday afternoon in November, Amirsehi is the first to arrive at the center. She has short brown hair swept away from her face, dark eyes and, today, an anxious expression.
"Ready?" Chong asks, beaming, as he walks in. The large room is lined with drawings in bright crayon that, taped together, show a fantastic bridge from Africa to the United States.
"Yeah," Amirsehi says. "Getting nervous. Do you usually work with amateurs?"
"I work with real people," he says forcefully. "Not amateurs. There are no amateurs in this show."
Gradually the kids arrive. Each one comes in quietly and sits down. Abdul next to Dereen; they shake hands. Awa, pretty and lithe, next to Fatu. Chong shuffles through copies of the script, noting late changes for his stage manager, Courtney Golden. Yarvin, at 18 the oldest, is the last one to arrive. Red-faced and flustered, she takes a seat in the corner, a bit removed from the others.
Chong leads them over to a table where he has spread out a series of maps. "This is Abdul's country, Afghanistan," he says. "And this is Sulaymaniyah, Dereen's city. Dereen, do you call it Kurdistan?"
"Yes," he answers quietly.
El Salvador. Somalia. Iran. The kids absorb the geography lesson in silence, and then return to the table. "If there are any words in there you don't understand, raise your hand," he says, as they flip through the first pages of their new life story.
Yarvin begins, reading from the top. "Let's get started. Please sit." ("Say the next part in Spanish," Chong interrupts.)"Mi nombre es Yarvin Cuchilla. Yo naci en el llano Los Patos departamento de la union El Salvador."
At first, the kids struggle with timing -- dates called in unison, 10 claps in a row. "If you listen to each other, you'll be at the same rhythm," Chong insists. "This whole show, it's very important that you listen to each other."
Listen they do, particularly once the script moves from national histories to personal dramas.
"These are the people who made my life miserable," says Yarvin, choking on the line. As the kids around the table call out the list of names from her past -- "Abuela Tina. Maria. Christina. Pedro. Manuel" -- Yarvin fights back tears. She can barely finish the next sentence: "These are the people who sustained me with their kindness." The kids call out: "Martin. Francisco. Santos. Emma. Lidia. Jose. Ellen." Yarvin's head dips, and she sobs quietly, her tiny body shaking from the effort not to make a scene.
Yarvin struggles with many of her lines; in fact, her history seems to affect the kids at least as profoundly as their own traumatic tales. When Yarvin, her eyes swollen now and her voice halting, says that her mother sold her to a friend for sex when she was only 14, in a motel room in Ocean City, Awa and Fatu shrink in their chairs. Awa's long black hair drops a curtain around her face. When Yarvin reads, in a broken voice, a line taken nearly verbatim from her interview -- that her daughter, now 2, "will never have to suffer as I have, and I will never deny her ... a mother's ... love" -- the weight of the room is almost too much to bear.
"I was afraid," Fatu tells me later, as she gathers her things to leave. "I thought mine would be worst. But I never cried when I told mine. When I heard that girl's ..." Her voice trails off. "Yarvin," Awa says. They are wide-eyed.
It is hard to imagine a month of this, much less a public performance. But Chong has been doing this kind of production for a decade. "Speaking is a healing act, putting it all out there," he says. It will get easier.
Three hours a day, five days a week. Chong's rehearsals begin to look and sound less like therapy, and more like practice. Fatu's performance transforms quickly. Early on, Chong worries that audiences won't understand her. "Her reading, speaking, is going to take some work," he says. "We'll have to adjust her lines as we go along."
Now he has coaxed Fatu into reading her lines more deliberately, and has discovered a lovely, powerful voice. "At first, when we needed to assign a line to someone, it was, Give it to Farinaz, give it to Yarvin," stage manager Golden recalls. Now, Chong is adding to Fatu's part. When her voice is clear, her charisma is magnetic.
Dereen poses a different directorial challenge. "We had to get him to be a little more expressive," Golden explains. He tends to read his lines in a quiet mono-tone, eyes fixed on the page.
"How does that make you feel?" Chong interrupts at one point, as Dereen describes with a detached air how Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi troops to slaughter the Kurds in Sulaymaniyah.
"Not happy?" Dereen says.
"Then make it sound not happy," Chong urges.
The next time is a little better.
The most enduring obstacle turns out to be simple logistics. None of the kids can get to rehearsal by bus or Metro, so volunteers from the center drive them to and from their homes, more than 200 rides in five weeks. Rehearsals start late -- and run late -- when volunteer drivers get stuck in Northern Virginia traffic (Chong can't really rehearse "Children of War" without a full cast). And sometimes, the life of a Washington-area teenager is too unpredictable for even careful plans. "At the fourth rehearsal, Abdul could not be found," Fisher recalls. "He wasn't at home when our driver went to pick him up." An hour later, a police cruiser pulled up, and out stepped Abdul. He had witnessed a stabbing at the school bus stop, and had had to go to court the same day because of it.
But two weeks pass, and a show begins to take shape. Chong and his kids move from the center to the theater, empty for the time being except for a clutter of folding chairs. Chong nitpicks about pronunciation, and timing. He scolds the teenagers playfully, then impatiently, when they miss their cues to speak. ("Stop stop stop!") The kids are no longer the fragile, solemn bunch from two Sundays ago, avoiding eye contact and holding back tears. They are gossiping, clowning around. "They're all palsy-walsy now," Chong says wryly, as he struggles to move through the script on schedule.
"We haven't just read the play and gone home," Awa explains. "We talk. Sometimes we even ride home with each other. [Our] high schools are very similar. We've become friends through our circumstances."
During a 10-minute break, Awa and the rest of the cast pick at potato chips, sandwiches and fresh dates on a snack table at the back of the theater and complain about cafeteria pizza ("gross" is easily the consensus).
But they share more than school gripes. They share a youth culture run through a multinational blender, neither the culture of their parents nor that of their American-born peers. When Abdul recedes to the edge of the conversation and slips a tape into his Walkman, Fatu pesters him: "What are you listening to?"
"It's from another country," Abdul says, seemingly used to ending conversation there.
"Your country?" Fatu asks.
"No," Dereen says, straining to hear the muffled chorus escaping from Abdul's headphones. "It's Hindi."
"Bollywood!" Fatu squeals, and steals Abdul's Walkman. "I watched all these movies in Sierra Leone." She puts on his headphones and swivels her arms and hips just like a Bollywood star. Abdul befriended the owner of an Indian import shop near his apartment, he explains, who lends him all the new movies from Bombay.
Onstage, the camaraderie is evident. During Dereen's interview, his mother sobbed as she told the story of a woman who begged her for food or a blanket as they fled invading Iraqi soldiers. In "Children of War," Fatu will give voice to that helpless woman. Today, she gives the line a little extra. "Please! Give me food!" she says with goofy melodrama. "Pleeeaaaaaase, give me foooood!!!" Abdul bellows, mug-faced, trying to outdo her. Everyone giggles. Later, when Amirsehi is about to speak, Abdul turns to her and, for no apparent reason, bugs his eyes wildly. Amirsehi laughs, and misses her line. The laughter is infectious. It takes a dozen tries to get the group through the scene without giggling. "Come on ... " Chong says, drawing the words out like a parent. "I'm getting upset ..."
After rehearsal, the students gather in a corner of the theater. When they are asked why they have volunteered to put their lives on display, their tone is surprisingly defiant: They are determined to change people's minds. About them, about their countries, about immigrants. The sudden gravity is a striking transformation from the antics that dominated rehearsal.
"My dad, sometimes he goes like this," Abdul says, pantomiming a limp. "Kids asked what happened. I say they hit him with a ... bullet. The kids said, Shut up, you liar, he fell from somewhere."
Last year, when Fatu's world history teacher at Annandale High asked her class if they could imagine how horrible burning bodies must smell, Fatu said she remembered. The other kids didn't believe her. They made fun of her. She wanted to run to the bathroom, she says; she wanted to cry. "And some people pretend they believe," she says, "but then behind your back, they're like, She's a liar!"
"At school, people can be so cruel sometimes," Dereen agrees. No matter how often he explains that he is Kurdish, they assume he's an Iraqi who loves Hussein, or terrorists, or both. "They just don't listen to you," he says. "And the newspapers and magazines, they describe the Kurdish people as dirty people who eat with their hands in villages, but we're not that way," he says, anger beginning to break through his placid demeanor. "I'm tired of explaining. I'm tired of it!"
"Now, people will listen," he says firmly. Everyone nods. "That's why they're paying a lot of money for tickets. To listen to us."
What will they learn? "I'm hoping that this show will open parents' eyes," Yarvin says. "So they learn not to neglect their kids, not to mistreat them, not to beat them, not to treat them like trash, not to tell them that they're dogs ... " She starts to cry, but instead of lowering her head, she holds it high. "I want ... I want parents who right now are treating their kids bad to learn that a kid is really valuable."
"I want people to know that 95 percent of the immigrants here, there are circumstances that force them to come here," Awa says. ("I wanted to say that, too!" Fatu interrupts.) "In my school, some people will be like, African people need to go back to Africa," Awa continues, her voice icy now. "They can't. There's a reason why they came here. We did not come from high-middle-class families and say, Oh, let's go to the United States for fun."
This sense of mission is what convinced Dennis Hunt that Chong's work could be more than a fundraiser, or community outreach -- that it could be therapeutic. The show's group dynamic is powerful, he says, similar to the supportive dynamic you might see in group counseling. "We're one family, we shared our pain, and we're about to tell other people about it," Dereen says.
But the therapeutic potential of "Children of War" is more sophisticated than that, Hunt believes. "When you do therapy, there's an assumption that something is wrong, and it is with you," he explains. That is especially true among immigrants and refugees. (Of the five teenagers, only Yarvin has been through counseling.) This project has much in common with the counseling technique called testimony therapy.
"I say something like, 'Thank you for agreeing to share your experiences with me. Start wherever you like.' And I'll type when they're talking," explains Stuart Lustig, a psychiatrist at the Boston Medical Center who has used the technique with boys from Sudan. "We then take that narrative and use it for something, in the political arena or the social arena," he continues. "It transforms the person from victim or survivor to educator or advocate. It creates some sort of meaning out of what has happened."
It also reduces the stigma of therapy. "Most cultures have some kind of tradition of storytelling. They're telling you they're doing it because they want to help the people who are still enslaved in Sudan and it's not because it will help me feel better."
Now, Abdul says he wishes his father could participate in his own "Children of War." "When I tell my story to someone, I feel good later," he says. But his father: "He has a song, from his country. He puts it on, and then ..." Abdul puts his face in his hands, in a pantomime of grief. "And my little brother is like, What happened to you?"
Lustig expresses some concern that Chong directs the interviews with his subjects and composes the script himself. "I don't think it works quite as well," he says. "When you have people who've been directed for so long -- to sleep where they're told to sleep, to eat where they're told to eat -- taking control of your story is a very powerful thing."
But Hunt believes the process of weaving the stories together might combine the most important elements of testimony with the support of a group and the satisfaction of participating in something creative. And unlike many group therapy sessions, which one or two people may dominate, the structure of Chong's script ensures that his performers share equally, and that, ultimately, they share one new history.
Dereen's mother has already noticed a change in her son's manner. "Dereen's personality is very shy. Seeing his father killed made him back off from life," she says one evening over cardamom tea and cake in their home in Centreville. This fall, she says, he has become more and more outgoing. "I never knew he had so much to say!" she says, smiling. "I see almost a different person."
Hunt hopes to take "Children of War" with the same cast to other communities this year, and next year to develop new therapeutic models and public education initiatives inspired by the play. Just how ambitious the project becomes, however, may depend on funding. The center has already received half a dozen requests from around the country to stage a performance. But thus far, it has barely covered the costs of commissioning Chong and renting the theater space. "It's a big investment," Hunt says of the play, which altogether cost more than $200,000 to produce. "We still don't know how we're going to pay for it."
The reviews will call tonight, December 4, a preview performance. But for the kids, there is no asterisk, this is the world premiere, nothing after will top it. Tomorrow is the gala opening, but tickets are $125, so it is doubtful they will know anyone in the audience. Tonight, when the house lights go up and the applause begins, they will see parents, relatives, teachers and friends, along with the schoolchildren and counselors the center has invited.
Chong is excited, a bit manic, nervous. Yarvin has come down with a cold, and he's not sure if her voice is going to last. "I had to try to arrange for her to see a doctor," Fisher says, "though she had no insurance to cover it. I could not reach the foster care worker to find out why in the world she did not have Medicaid or open access to care." At their last rehearsal, Yarvin could only manage a thin rasp. "I had to stand in for her," Chong says, and sneaks a look at Abdul. "The falsetto nearly killed me." He puts on his best teenage girl voice: "My name is Yarvin." Abdul giggles.
Chong leads Abdul, Awa, Yarvin, Dereen and Fatu out onto the stage for a microphone check. The technician wants them each to read a few lines. But they don't read their own.
"The leaders of the uprising are the first to cave in," Yarvin says in a thin, hoarse voice. "The five who opposed the uprising stand fast. For nine months, we remain blindfolded in the graves." Amirsehi turns her head, surprised. Yarvin is reading the grimmest of Amirsehi's lines, where she is tortured and held in solitary confinement in Iran.
"We all get out, but the driver panics," Fatu says, borrowing from Awa's story. "The guerrillas start shooting. My baby sister is hit." This is the only scene that will flap unflappable Awa during the performance, but now, when Fatu reads her lines, she can't help smiling.
The game continues. They grin wider, and then laugh, with each swapped trauma. Zalzal Sanderson, sitting in the third row, chuckles and shakes her head.
Later, backstage, they fuss with their costumes. They can wear anything they want to. Abdul is in a gray suit with a clip-on tie and shiny black shoes. Yarvin's shirt wraps her in red roses. Awa is draped in a white Somali dress, with patterned scarves of bright orange, red and green. Fatu wears a long blue dress; Dereen, a pair of wide gray pants that flare at the hips, a thick cloth sash around his waist, and a matching jacket.
Abdul grabs a handful of Kleenex and, as usual, gets everyone's attention. "Is it okay if I cry?" he asks melodramatically. "Yes, it's okay," says Zalzal Sanderson, watching over the kids until they go on. A few moments later, Abdul makes a big show of blotting his eyes with a wad of tissues. "Boo hoo hoo!" he fake blubbers.
"Come on," Amirsehi chides him, and laughs as she tugs at his tissues. Then she moves closer, and tilts her head. "Wait," she says. "Abdul, you're really crying!"
"If I think about it ..." he says, suddenly serious, and doesn't say anything else. She gives him a long hug, and whispers in his ear in Persian.
Hunt steps into a spotlight and unfolds a sheet of paper. "Worldwide there are 25 million refugees and 20 million displaced people," he says. "Eighty percent are women and children. More than half are under age 18. Every day 5,000 children become refugees."
The lights go down, and the cast members walk onstage in a line, circling a half-moon of folding chairs before taking their seats. A shallow bed of rock salt crunches under their feet, and a pale blue moon hovers behind them, projected on the theater's dark wall.
"Let's get started," Yarvin says, facing the audience. "Please sit."
The performance runs an hour and 20 minutes, and it feels shorter than that. The kids miss some lines, and change others without realizing it. Yarvin tries hard not to cough, and her voice barely holds through the end. Everyone struggles with the same scenes that shook them on the first day of rehearsal. Amirsehi strains to recite the names of her friends who were killed in Iran. She weeps when she recalls getting out of prison after eight years and reuniting with her mother, whose hair had turned from black to completely gray. Yarvin wrestles the most visibly with her past, but Abdul sweetly produces a handful of tissues from his pocket and slips them to her during the show.
"Life is hard in Pakistan," Abdul says. "There is no money. My parents have no work. They have to sell their belongings."
"My father falls. My mother screams," Dereen says. "I escape from my mother's arms and run to him. He is bleeding badly. My father struggles to get up. He wants to tell us he loves us. Then he falls again. My father dies. I don't have a chance to tell him I love him. I am 5 years old."
"My mother wants to get off refugee welfare," Awa says. "She wants a job but she does not have a car here, and Centreville has poor public transportation."
"We are so excited we run outside without our winter coats or boots," Fatu says. "I get a bucket and fill it with snow. I want to save it and take it back to Sierra Leone one day to show my friends."
"Three years have passed since I moved into my foster home," says Yarvin. "I have a real family now. When I go to school my foster mother takes care of my baby. Jose and I are still together. I have a new start and a new life in front of me. I want to study criminal justice, but the first thing I will do when I graduate from high school is work as a 911 dispatcher. I want to help other people."
"You can choose anything in the world, my child, but you can never choose your heritage," says Amirsehi, repeating a line that appears in every "Undesirable Elements" production.
Abdul's mother shushes two of his young siblings without taking her eyes off the stage. Dereen's mother wipes away tears throughout the show: when Dereen talks about his father, naturally, but also when the other boys and girls share their memories, particularly Yarvin.
It is voyeuristic. It is jarring, even if you already know what's going to happen. And it is powerful.
As the performance nears its end, the teenagers stand up, say their names one by one, and describe the day of their birth. Dereen speaks the show's last line -- "On the day I was born, bombs fell on my city" -- and the theater goes black. The audience applauds loudly. Dereen's mother, in the second row, is the first to stand; when the lights come up the whole audience is on its feet. The kids cling to each other, rocking back and forth, and when Chong lopes down the aisle to join them, they just about knock him over.
Douglas McGray is a Washington-based writer. Director Ping Chong will be fielding questions and comments about "Children at War" at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline