Times writers dramatize Darfur revelations

Darfur refugees
Sudanese women are seen selling tobacco at the Tawila market. The city, located 70 km west of Al-Fasher, is known as the "Fallujah of Darfur" because of violence. People have fled to live in a nearby camp, but come back to town for market days, twice a week.
Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

In the Darfur region of Sudan, people are dying by the hundreds of thousands in a blatant act of genocide. New York Times researcher Winter Miller has studied the Darfur crisis for years, but she still wasn't prepared for the reality when she travelled to the Sudanese border earlier this year.

Foraging for food
A displaced woman is grinding fish on the banks of a river in south Darfur.
Photo by TUGALA RIDLEY/AFP/Getty Images

"People talk about the resilience of the Sudanese, and there's no better word," says Miller. "It's the most punishing environmental conditions. It's unimaginable to me how people forage in peaceful times. Add a genocide, and they're getting raped and killed every time they step outside to get firewood. It's beyond comprehension."

Miller is also a playwright. She found an opportunity to bridge her two worlds in Minneapolis at the Playwrights' Center's "Two-Headed Challenge." Each year the Playwrights' Center chooses a writer who wants to collaborate with someone knowledgeable on a difficult topic.

Winter Miller chose to work with her colleague, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof says he was happy to help.

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Lab Work
The Playwrights' Center's Polly Carl, writer Winter Miller and a director discuss the latest draft of "Never Again, Again." Winter Miller's play addresses the genocide of black Africans by their Arab neighbors over land use.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"Since Winter knows the world of theater, and since it is a way of dramatizing really awful things that people don't always want to focus on, I thought it was terrific," says Kristof.

Many a movie has dealt with genocide: "Hotel Rwanda," "Schindler's List." But how do you convey the horror of genocide on the stage? Playwrights' Center Director Polly Carl says this has got to be one of the very hardest kinds of plays to write.

"Plays are really about the imagination," says Carl. "Films can show you lots of bodies and can give you the horrific visual images without saying much. But with a play, you really have to figure out a way that you can take an issue that's enormous, shrink it down so it fits on a stage, and still let it have the impact. You still have to feel that enormity."

Carl and a director sit with Miller through several readings of her play, suggesting revisions to make it more dramatic and more accessible.

Miller says she wants her audience to connect with the people of Darfur by seeing individual characters on stage, instead of a sea of nameless faces on the news. And so she created Hawa, a young teacher and translator who's lost her family and is struggling to survive.

Testing the script
Actress Sonja Parks plays the role of Hawa in Winter Miller's play "Never Again, Again." The play is being developed as part of the Playwrights' Center's annual Playlab Festival.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Hawa's plight unfolds alongside the story of a Swedish journalist desperate to report the crisis, and an American doctor trying to provide aid to the wounded.

The title for Winter Miller's play is "Never Again, Again." She says in the wake of past genocides, people have declared "Never again!" But still genocides continue.

Miller says with her other plays, she's used to being patient, waiting for the work to find a home on stage. But not this time.

"I wrote this play now, so quickly and for this reason, because something needs to be done now. Something needs to be done yesterday," says Miller. "So in an ideal world somebody says, 'Let me see that script,' great! I love the idea of it, let's do it."

The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis has scheduled a dramatic reading of "Never Again, Again" as part of its PlayLabs festival. Then Winter Miller will have to wait and see if a theater is willing to mount a full production.