IN DARFUR Opens! First the reviews…

We bring the good (many), the mixed (one), the rave (in the next post), and share with you this; that we’ve been inordinately quiet on the blog during these exceedingly busy, rich, financially challenging times, but that will not persist. We’ve promised that before, but the pressures of opening and naming the new season have forced too much self-checking. Further, backstage dramas have enforced a no-gossip ethic and while we all are happy about that, the truth is the backstage dramas have had nothing to with the art we’re making, nor with the artists we’re working with. We’ve had nothing but artistic distinction on stage and the warmest creative environments in our history on stage and in the rehearsal room.

Winter Miller’s IN DARFUR compels us not to be silent.  And Hadar Galron’s MIKVEH, now in its first week of rehearsals, compels us not to be silent as well. The reviews you’re soon to read below, compel us to shout with urgency and bemoan the state of politically-engaged theater in this city and lay the blame where it belongs. First the good reviews of yesterday:

from Rich Massabny
“Arlington Weekly News TV”
Comcast CHANNEL 69

Theater J doesn’t do “Hello Dolly” type shows or other non-thinking productions. This has never been truer than today with its current show, “In Darfur,” by New York Times writer Winter Miller. She tells the gripping and horrible true story of conditions in Darfur where rape and the slaughter of men, women and children are ongoing against the non-Arab tribes. It’s a riveting depiction directed by Derek Goldman. You may feel a bit squeamish to see just a slice of this true story about Miller’s experiences in Sudan and her efforts to get the word out to the rest of the world through the New York Times in mid-2000. Veteran actor/director Rahaleh Nassri plays Maryka, the Times reporter on the scene who is distressed by releasing the name of a raped Darfuri woman, Hawa (Erika Rose) in order to get the story published. Hawa is educated and speaks English and her interaction with Maryka is so intense and believable—as are the rest of the cast. Lucas Best (Carlos) plays an American physician who tries to help the people. Deidra LaWan Starnes (Jan) is the Times editor who through the phone tells Maryka the Times needs an I.D. in order to publish this earthshaking story. Jessica Frances Dukes (Hamida) adds to the almost spiritual pleadings about the genocide. Carl James and Brandon White scare us with their military brutality. Yes, “In Darfur,” is tough to watch, but must be seen. It runs through Apr. 18 at Theater J in the District.

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We Love Arts: In Darfur
By Jenn Larsen
, April 6th, 2010

“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.

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Theater J has an acting gem with its premiere production of “In Darfur” (To 4/18) and the contents of the script is meant to shock the audience about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of natives being slaughted by the army and political powers in the Sudan. It is not a show for youngsters but it should be mandatory for adults lest they ignore this genocide as they have done so in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Playwright Winter Miller was pretty comprehensive in describing the events…military, political, ethnic, social (people from Darfur are considered slaves and chattel) in this province of the Sudan but somehow she doesn’t mention that the struggle is partly due to religious differences…again! The Moslem majority this time is eliminating those who practice tribal religions. Yet the show is very effective in showing the frustration of international “help” groups in getting supplies through and trying to neutralize the conflicts…mostly caused by the Sharia law which allows torturing and raping women.

Director Derek Goldman does a masterful job of taking the audience to the pinnacle of revulsion and emotionality. Ari Roth should soon be eligible for a humanitarian award for his fine selection of plays…this being one…which intend to break the barriers of politics and religions conflicts and lead to a “peace” in our time. The fine actors ae Lucas Beck, Jessical Frances Dukes, Carl James, Rahaleh Nassri, Erika Rose, Deidra LaWan Starnes and Brandon White. The only negative in the production was the use of a crater box for the jeep…it was difficult to suspend disbelief when that prop was being used. (The characters might just as well be trekking over the sand on foot).
(Reviewed by Bob Anthony)

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Oh and here’s the mixed but actually really disappointing and potentially damaging review that ran in the Post with some lousy print headlines that didn’t run on line.

Peter Marks reviews ‘In Dafur’ at Theater J
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

For what feels like the longest time, you wait for a telltale tingling sensation during “In Darfur,” Winter Miller’s sober, rather prosaic drama about the Sudanese civil war. And then at last, the lights on Theater J’s stage form a halo around Erika Rose, playing a Darfuri Muslim whose family has been systematically slaughtered, and your pulse begins to quicken.

It’s Hawa’s appalling testimony, the story of finding the broken bodies of her husband and son, that finally shoots some electricity into the solemn advance of the plot, an attempt to dramatize the journalistic complexities of telling the story of an African conflict in a way that would make the West stop and listen.
With her hauntingly expressive eyes, Rose cuts a warmly embraceable figure as Hawa, an educated woman who survives other atrocities at the hands of the government-backed militia. If only the production’s richness extended beyond her presence. The other principal characters, an anguished refugee camp doctor (Lucas Beck) and an impatient New York Times correspondent (Rahaleh Nassri), adhere less affectingly to the formulaic strictures of this consciousness-raising genre.

Handled with an almost clinical sensitivity by director Derek Goldman, “In Darfur” is afflicted at times with an airlessness that comes from a tendency to finger-wag, over the West’s inattention to the war, or daily journalism’s situational morals. Miller, a onetime researcher for roving Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, establishes for Nassri’s Maryka a prickly adversary in Deidra LaWan Starnes, as a Times editor back in New York. Their tense transatlantic exchanges feel authentic, but seem better suited to ethical case study reenactments than to full-bodied drama.

The playwright’s desire to sound the alarm reduces some characters to mouthpieces. “I need a front-page story or Darfur is buried!” says Maryka, barging in on the doctor and jeopardizing his safety. “. . . There has to be a public outcry!” Moments such as this remind you of the kind of high-minded television movies written for well-known actors seeking to champion a cause. No fault can be found with the sentiment. It’s just that you wonder if perhaps there isn’t a way to express it without hitting an audience over the head.

“In Darfur” takes place in 2004, when the chaos of the region was in an early phase and its cruelties were just starting to come to light. Maryka, facing a deadline for coming up with a compelling human-interest story, plies Beck’s frustrated Carlos with Scotch and eventually gets him to spill the beans about Hawa, whose plight is tailor-made for Maryka’s readers: Hawa is a schoolteacher and, more importantly, speaks English. Even more significantly, from the reporter’s point of view: Hawa was raped by the militia men and, as a consequence of a harshly repressive culture, is persecuted as an adulterer.

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