I needed to go there. I needed to breathe in the dust, feel the ground, look into people’s eyes and just feel what it felt like to be there, or else I felt in danger of writing an academic treatise rather than a play with the intention to open hearts.
— “In Darfur” playwright Winter Miller
Early in the rehearsal process for In Darfur, I had the opportunity to interview playwright Winter Miller. We discussed why she is so passionate about the people in Darfur, what is happening to them and how she conceived the play. Note that this is the full-length version of this interview; an edited version is published in our Backstory magazine . All photos are courtesy of Winter.
[NOTE: You can meet Winter this weekend when she joins us at TimeLine for “A Conversation with Winter Miller,” taking place on Sunday, February 20 from 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ Sanctuary (next door to TimeLine). It’s FREE and open to the public, read more at our website and make a reservation to attend by calling (773) 281-8463 x6]
(Nick Bowling) How did you get involved in writing plays?
(Winter Miller) When I was about 15, my dad read a book report I wrote on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and told me I was good at writing dialogue. I ignored this praise. I wanted to be an actor. I realized I had been swimming in a small pool, and when I looked at the ocean of New York, I realized how little I knew about myself and about acting. I took acting classes, was in some plays and could feel how numb I was and that unless I had access to my body and my emotions no one was going to want to watch someone so in her head onstage. So I applied to two grad schools, one for playwriting and one for acting. I let fate decide. I got someone else’s rejection letter to NYU’s acting school and was accepted into Columbia’s playwriting program. I never really researched it, I just went.
(NB) Your play, In Darfur, came out of a trip you took with Nicholas Kristof, the well-known New York Times columnist. How did that trip come about, and can you describe the experience?
(WM) I was working as Nick’s researcher at the Times, and he was writing about Darfur before anyone else really was, at least with a wide audience. I began to know about atrocities most people I knew had no idea were going on, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what could I do to bring awareness to this conflict—assuming that if we knew what was happening, the world collectively would intervene. False assumption on my part.
Since Nick had the Op-Ed writing part covered well, I thought about what I could bring to the table and came up with the idea to write a play about Darfur. It was my good fortune to win the commission from the Playwrights Center and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis called the Two Headed Challenge. This gave me some money to cover my plane fare to Chad and the guts to believe I could write a play that wasn’t a dark comedy and didn’t have my family in it. Oh, and was about genocide in Africa, in a place few had heard of yet.
Nick didn’t want to take me with him; he said it was too dangerous. I explained that just as he isn’t an armchair reporter, I was not an armchair playwright and to write about something so unfamiliar to me, I needed to go there. I needed to breathe in the dust, feel the ground, look into people’s eyes and just feel what it felt like to be there, or else I felt in danger of writing an academic treatise rather than a play with the intention to open hearts.
The experience was life-altering. To experience firsthand the resilience of the refugees I met along the Chad/Sudan border, to see what they had survived and were still trying to survive each day taught me things I didn’t know about the human spirit.
The night sky there is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, including way out in the middle of the ocean where there’s nothing but sea. There were no clouds, was no humidity, and there was so little electricity that the night sky lights reveals a thick black curtain pebbled with lights.
It was difficult to be powerless to actually do anything on the ground that would save a life. One day in the field we were told the Janjaweed were coming to the exact soil we were standing on and we had to leave a town full of the elderly, children and the ill—all those who weren’t strong enough to flee and had been left—to face the Janjaweed on their own. We looked at their faces, I took a photo of them standing there in a ring around us and wondered if this would be the last evidence that they’d lived. We got in the car and drove away. We had no other choice. As we drove in silence, I was painfully aware of how vulnerable they all were and the privilege we were born into and that we weren’t going to be heroes.
I saw a young man dying, because he was fighting on behalf of the Janjaweed, and he and his horse had been shot. His friend, who was next to him tied loosely in ropes, said they had gone against their tribe because they were going to be paid $200, and they needed the money. I understood the desperation it must have taken for him to betray his neighbors. I also knew, we weren’t going to put him in our car and drive him to the hospital because he’d crossed a line; he’d made a decision, and he was going to have to, in that moment, live and die with it.
(NB) When you took that trip, did you already have an idea what story you wanted to tell? How did the idea evolve during your research and writing of the play?
(WM) I knew the plot and the three main characters. In order to submit to the Two Headed Challenge, an outline was required. I came up with it in about an hour or two—that never happens with me; plot is something I plod toward and I make a lot of mistakes along the way.
The main character was based on a woman Nick had written about in one of his columns, Hawa, a college-educated English teacher. She was chained to a hospital bed because she had been raped, and the aid worker who had helped her had reported to the UN that she’d been raped. The Sudanese police, sent by the government, came and arrested her, because being raped is a crime of adultery.
I wanted Western characters in the play because I wanted an American audience to resonate with what was happening in Darfur, and I thought it would be most accessible if I presented people and scenarios that I and people I know could relate to. I wanted this to be a play that would be seen. Or else, why write this one at all?
(NB) In the play, you deal with the ethical challenges a journalist faces in getting a story out without compromising the people who are acting as sources. Did you have to resolve similar challenges in bringing this story to the stage?
(WM) Well, I wanted Carlos, the aid worker, to be affiliated with a particular aid group that is well known worldwide. But when this aid organization read the play—I had them fact-check it, along with a lot of other people—they said, you can’t name our organization; you will endanger our people on the ground, you will jeopardize our freedom to be there if we are seen as taking a political stance. Of course, regardless, the Government of Sudan kicked out all the aid groups in addition to targeting aid workers and derailing their efforts.
In terms of my sources, I protected all of them; I let nothing be traceable to any one particular person. I imagined all the journalist and aid-worker stuff based on things that actually could happen—I interviewed a lot of journalists and aid workers. I don’t think you can really compare a play that is a work of fiction based on some true events with a journalist’s role, which is to tell the story with true facts, true circumstances. What I did was look for emotional truth and then back it up with stuff that could very well have happened.
(NB) Interesting. Can you say more about how you view the role of a journalist versus that of a playwright?
(WM) To me, it’s two sides of the same coin. As a journalist or a playwright your ultimate goal is to tell a good story. The first requires factual information, attributions about who said what and what happened chronologically, and a real attention to perceiving a situation as objectively as possible. As a playwright, I seek emotional truth; people need to do actions and feel emotions that are believable or else the story is a hollow shell. So I can play with who said what and I can make it more dramatic, but I’m still going for the same goal, to tell a particular truth.
(NB) How did you want your play to illuminate what’s happening in Darfur?
(WM) I wanted to point out the complexity of the conflict, that it isn’t simply Arabs vs. Africans, Christians vs. Muslims. That those delineations don’t take into account the way the culture is lived, nomads and farmers. That there are linguistic and cultural differences, but that they also happen on a continuum. That what made this appear like an X vs. Y conflict was the propaganda of the Government of Sudan, its desire to destabilize and get rid of entire groups of people, like the Fur, the Massalit and the Zaghawa. I thought if collectively we saw what was happening to humans—to us—we could feel outside our comfort zone, raise our voices and demand leadership from world leaders and the UN. I wanted the audience’s love for Hawa, the desire to see her survive, to represent our desire for all of these people to survive.
(NB) What did you wish to accomplish with this play?
(WM) I wanted to be a part of a movement that, along with journalists and activists, was and is seeking to bring about an end to genocide in Darfur and to those genocides that are brewing in other hot spots. I wanted to break open a few hearts and see if that spurred some of us to action. I wanted to say, “Look, here it is, you know what’s going on. What you do about it is your choice, but you can’t say you didn’t know.”
(NB) There will be a great deal of political activity happening between northern and southern Sudan in early 2011. Can you explain how this may affect Darfur?
(WM) The entire country may be destabilized. There may be another genocide unfolding in south Sudan, and Darfur will potentially be further forgotten. These are people who are living scattered in refugee camps and camps for internally displaced persons—they don’t have their lives or their livelihood back, and they have not been given safety. If all hell breaks loose in southern Sudan, then you’ve simply got more bodies to bury, more children without parents—and peace slips further away.
(NB) In just the few years since the play was written, the situation in Darfur has changed dramatically. How do you think this affects our experience of the play?
(WM) It has and it hasn’t changed. People are living and dying in camps. It’s genocide in slow motion if you’re dying from malnutrition and disease. The villages are burned, so you can’t keep burning and looting what isn’t there to loot. But the rapes continue. It’s not safe in the camps. Women barter sex with Chadian soldiers, hoping for some protection, and HIV is passed from man to woman and to child. If you’re in the audience and you think that just because people aren’t being shelled every day, there’s enough peace to rebuild—then you don’t have the full story. When it chooses, the Government of Sudan still perpetrates violence on people who are unprotected. And by keeping aid workers out, the death toll continues.
I’ll be curious to see how this audience receives the play. I chose to set it in 2004 and keep it in that time frame. But just because the play ends there, that doesn’t mean that the violence isn’t still a daily threat. There is a collective consciousness about what they’ve all lived through: There is communal trauma; there are ongoing traumas. Children aren’t getting educated, and adults aren’t working. It’s stasis in a very horrible situation.
(NB) What would you say to someone who says, “I don’t want to see a depressing play about genocide or murder”?
(WM) A) Don’t go see a depressing play about genocide. But can you find a way to engage in a way of helping to end genocides, can you use your energy as a force for good?
B) I don’t think this play is depressing. It’s a play about the resilience of the human spirit and a rallying call for action. The intention here is to remind us of our own humanity.
C) What do you want to see? What matters to you? Can you trust a playwright to lead you deeper into yourself, and are you willing to feel your own discomfort in the service of empathy and justice?
D) Also, there are some funny moments, I think humor is essential. Some call it gallows humor.
I realized that theater—or art—can nourish in a way that is just as necessary as medicine, food, shelter and safety. I saw how when people tell their stories, when they experience their aliveness in art, that sustains them through the darkest of times. It provides a memory, an escape.
(NB) What’s next for you?
(WM) Good question! I have no idea. Is there a suggestion box?
I’m trying to figure out how to leave enough space in my head to be an artist but to also figure out how to have some financial security. I just did an experiment of living as a nomad for almost two years to see what it would be like to just write plays and work only when absolutely necessary. It was an interesting experiment, but not sustainable. I have occasional visions about what I want to do in the world with the way I write and how I am eager to hear marginalized voices, but I’m not entirely sure how to birth that in an ongoing way.
On a trip to Uganda to write plays for former child soldiers in an Internally Displaced Persons camp, I realized that theater—or art—can nourish in a way that is just as necessary as medicine, food, shelter and safety. I saw how when people tell their stories, when they experience their aliveness in art, that sustains them through the darkest of times. It provides a memory, an escape.
I’d like to manifest some kind of “Playwrights Without Borders,” where a team of artists goes into places of deep conflict and works to allow the expression of that trauma and conflict in a way that addresses human resilience and beauty. People want to know they matter; telling their story is one way to do that. So I’d like to facilitate a lot more storytelling among people as a means of bridging our differences and opening our hearts. It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I’m willing to be mocked for something I’ve seen with my own eyes. When we put ourselves in the shoes of another, most of us—many of us—find compassion. I seek that compassion for all of us, myself included.
(NB) Is there anything else you would like to share with TimeLine’s audience about In Darfur or yourself?
(WM) My gratitude to TimeLine for this production and to you, the audience, for receiving the work, however it lands with you and wherever you take it. Thank you.