Playwright Winter Miller's In Darfur is a good-hearted and belated attempt to get the word out on the genocide in the play's namesake region. It is based on a series of interviews conducted by Miller with refugees on the Darfur border of Sudan and Chad, where the Darfuris had gone to escape death at the hands of the Janjaweed — African-Arab tribal herders who were armed in the late '90s by the government in Khartoum and deployed in 2003 to put down insurgencies in the Darfur region of Western Sudan and who proceeded to rape, torture, and murder virtually every Darfuri they found. In Darfur crams this horror into 90 minutes that blows by like 40. Unfortunately, pace isn't everything.
In Darfur tells the story of Hawa (Patrice DeGraff Arenas), a Darfuri English teacher and literature lover, and the two Westerners she befriends. It opens with the three sitting stiffly in a jeep, traversing a desert and getting shot at by men on horseback. Then the Westerners are gone — quite mysteriously, I thought at the time, though it later became apparent that the opening sequence was a flash-forward — and Hawa is fleeing her decimated farming village to cross the desert on foot. It takes many days and many nights, the passage of which is indicated by a lush lighting schema by Sean McLelland and by Arenas' ever-more pronounced limp as she staggers around the stage, crying to herself. Then she's in a camp, being treated for various wounds by Dr. Carlos (Ricky Waugh) and being courted by a New York Times reporter named Maryka (Pilar Uribe). Carlos' motives are uncomplicated: He just wants to help. Maryka, on the other hand, wants a story. It is 2003, and the world knows nothing of the crisis in Darfur. Maryka wants to break it wide open.
Therein lies the story's conflict. Roaming Hawa's refugee camp are Sudanese police officers in the grip of such profound patriotic fervor that they graphically beat the shit out of Hawa just for telling her doctor she's been raped by government-armed forces. But without media exposure to incite the world's outrage, wholesale rape and worse shall continue. How to tell the world and avoid getting curb-stomped by M-16-wielding Sudanese?
This is an interesting question. I wish In Darfur made it seem so. But the play, despite its speed and the obvious power of its subject matter, is nearly lifeless on the stage. Never mind In Darfur's many supporting characters, who are barely given enough to do to qualify as placeholders; even Carlos and Maryka are only about as developed as Darfur itself. Their histories, motivations, and personalities are absent from Miller's text. Waugh and Uribe seem resigned to this and grimly give their all to a script that won't give them a clue — getting riled up, getting angry, getting over it, sharing nervous laughs, arguing with editors, arguing with police, all with lots of verve and no distinction. Despite the pair's considerable skill, they simply are not credible. In Darfur would have us believe that Carlos thinks about nothing but helping refugees and that Maryka thinks about nothing but her story and its possible geopolitical ramifications. Even in wartime, even in a refugee camp, people are more complicated than that.
Hawa fares better, which is a bit of a surprise. After all, it is she who ought to be the composite image: the stand-in for all the human suffering in Western Sudan, and the living testimonial to all that Miller's interviewees have witnessed. But she is marvelously articulated, a specific person with a specific past, with dreams (to work for an American newspaper) and quirks (a lovable, whip-quick sense of sarcasm that produces the sunniest gallows humor I've ever seen) all her own. I left the theater liking her immensely, but as I put more distance between myself and the play, I realized how grossly manipulative she is. Not Arenas, who is faultless and whose beautiful face is so composedly expressive that her entire performance is like some above-the-neck variety of Kabuki theater. It is the character that manipulates. She is never angry. No matter how many gang rapes she endures, no matter how severely she is beaten, and no matter how often the people she loves are killed or left to their deaths, she is never more than momentarily put out. Then she's her old lovable self, cracking jokes and grinning slyly. She has the disposition of Anne Frank on Paxil, and her every line begs the question: Why would those nasty Janjaweed want to kill cute lil' Hawa?
The question is a bit of a strawman. Contrary to what In Darfur would have you believe, it is not the Janjaweed's mission to kill cute people. The actual reasons for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur are many and complex, having to do with climate change and desertification, historical resentments, and a little religious superstition. Some of this is paid lip service to, but that is all. All the non-Darfuri Sudanese shown in the play are presented as cackling vessels of pre-Freudian evil. Look at the way Keith C. Wade grins maniacally as any one of his interchangeably nasty characters is about to wail on poor, defenseless Howa. His villainy is so out of proportion to any real-world correlate that he looks like one of those Caribbean zombies from the silent-film era: the crazy black man out to put the hurt on defenseless womenfolk. Again, though: Don't blame the performer. He didn't have much to work with.
Yet for all this, In Darfur is crudely effective. There are lines in this play that feel like a bayonet in the guts. Howa: "Mothers choose among their children who will go get the firewood. If they send their sons, they get killed. If they send their daughters, they get raped. So they send their daughters." They are effective because you know they're true; that, however poorly constructed In Darfur may be, there really is a Darfur, and you are hearing something true about it.