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From bearing witness to writing drama

Special to The Times

WINTER Miller was near the Chad-Sudan border conducting research on the Darfur conflict last year when a Darfuri man took her to the spot where the janjaweed had bayoneted his son. “He said, ‘They’re in the trees. They can see us,’ ” she recalls. “We immediately got in the car and left. That moment was a bit chilling.”

Miller put her life at risk in the war-torn region not for a book or a news article, but for a play -- “In Darfur,” which had a developmental production at New York’s Public Theater in April and dual readings at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater and London’s Donmar Warehouse on July 9.

The play is one of a number of recent dramatic works revolving around the conflicts in Sudan, where government-backed militias have killed at least 200,000 people, and Rwanda, where extremist Hutu militias killed more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

Although the topic of genocide and war can be tough for audiences to stomach, the stakes lend themselves to drama. When J.T. Rogers went to Rwanda to research his play “The Overwhelming,” which premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2006 and opens off-Broadway in the fall, “every story was like something out of Shakespeare,” he says.

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Why take on such a difficult subject? For some playwrights, it’s a personal connection. Miller is the research assistant for Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times columnist who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his Darfur reports.

Miller persuaded Kristof to take her to refugee camps in Chad. The trip inspired “In Darfur,” in which a journalist goes to a camp to convince a victim to tell her story.

“I wasn’t paying much attention during the Rwandan genocide,” Miller says. “There was some sense of wanting to recognize that failing in myself and do better this time.”

Jenni Wolfson wrote about her near-death experiences as a U.N. investigator in Rwanda after the genocide for a monologues class at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York. The class was moved to tears. And despite the fact that Wolfson had little acting experience, her teacher offered to direct her in a solo show. “It’s actually scarier for me going onstage than being attacked by rebels in Rwanda,” she says. Her play, “Rash,” went up at 59E59 Theaters in New York on July 10 to 13 and will play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

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Sonja Linden’s play “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda” was inspired by a Rwandan woman she met at a London foundation for torture victims, where she was helping refugees write about their experiences. Her play, which tells the story of a Rwandan refugee and her writing tutor, premiered in London and has had about a dozen U.S. productions, including a run last year at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.

Tough topics

DRAMATISTS have tackled the subjects in a variety of ways. “Maria Kizito,” by Erik Ehn, dean of the CalArts School of Theater, revolves around a nun who aided the Rwandan genocide.

Max Stafford-Clark has directed not only “The Overwhelming” but also an Africa-set, Rwanda-inspired “Macbeth” and the Royal Court’s production of Stella Feehily’s “O Go My Man,” about a TV journalist who walks out on his wife and daughter in part because of the horrors he sees in Darfur.

In October of last year, London’s Tricycle Theatre created an evening of six short plays about Darfur. Many dealt with rape, while others were less direct, such as Lynn Nottage’s “Give, Again?,” a satire about an American couple deciding whether to donate to Darfur.

Western plays about Rwanda and Sudan face a particular challenge: How do you make a play resonate with audiences thousands of miles from Africa without being too preachy or too gruesome?

Rogers felt the key to avoiding such pitfalls was to keep the details specific. He put a 1993 map of the Rwandan capital of Kigali on his wall and researched how often it rained and what nightclubs were hot. And while many plays involve survivors discussing the genocide after the fact, Rogers started “The Overwhelming” beforehand: An American academic and his family travel to Rwanda in early 1994 to find a mysterious AIDS doctor and eventually fight for their lives as the crisis begins.

Being there

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“MY goal was to make the political and ethical situation something people [in the play] had to talk about,” Rogers says. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m glad you asked me about the Hutus and the Tutsis.’ It was all they could talk about that moment because it was life and death.

“I became gripped by the question of what would I do if I were placed in a situation like that, where every choice was monstrous,” he adds.

Like “The Overwhelming,” many of these plays have a Western character who leads the audience into an unfamiliar world -- a journalist in “In Darfur"; an investigator in “Rash"; a writing tutor in “I Have Before Me.”

In Michael Redhill’s “Goodness,” which played New York’s Performance Space 122 in March, that character is the playwright himself. A woman tells the playwright how she worked as a prison guard for the leader of an unnamed late 20th century genocide carried out on her people (the actress playing the guard is black but the actress playing her younger self is white). Engulfed in his own problems, the playwright eventually realizes how he too is capable of violence and how “you’re just a half a step away from where these other people got to,” Redhill says.

In adapting her touring solo play “Miracle in Rwanda” from the story of the real-life survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, Leslie Lewis Sword wanted to sidestep the myths and cliches about genocide by bringing out the complex emotions involved. Ilibagiza survived the genocide by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women for three months, but most striking of all is how she forgave the man who helped murder her family.

“I can’t forgive someone for taking my parking space, let alone somebody murdering your entire family,” Sword says. “She’s a case study of how to live a happy life. Here, for $35, we’ll show you how to forgive.” Sword says that one woman who saw the show went home and called her sister for the first time in 12 years.

Many plays about genocide in Africa use, of all things, humor. In “Rash,” Wolfson recounts the phone conversation in which she reported that Hutu rebels had stolen her Visa card. She also draws amusement from her protective but oblivious Scottish-Jewish parents. (Her dad: “Why don’t you just stay at home? I’ll teach you golf.”)

In Catherine Filloux’s “Lemkin’s House,” the tragicomic protagonist is the ghost of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and died in 1959. In childhood he plays genocide games with spoons and forks, and later he pesters U.S. senators to ratify the U.N.'s international anti-genocide treaty. After the ratification in 1988, with genocide supposedly no longer a problem, the ghost retires to work on crossword puzzles before Rwandan victims barge into his home.

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Unexpected results

“LEMKIN’S House” had a run at the Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival in San Diego this spring and played off-Broadway last year.

“I’ve had, with survivors, the most amazing laughs and the most amazing moments of joy,” says Filloux, who has written many plays on genocide. “Somehow that kind of suffering and that area of emotion definitely brings up the comic moments.”

Although plays about genocide can broaden awareness, it’s an open question whether they can influence change. In an effort to channel the goodwill instilled by the play “In Darfur,” the Public Theater passed out postcards that urged the state of New York to stop investing in companies doing business with Sudan. During the April run of the play, tables in the lobby had books for sale and donation suggestions.

At a talkback for “The Overwhelming” in London, Rogers was asked if political plays could make a difference. “I really don’t think so,” he responded. Then, he recalls, “somebody, with perfect timing, put up their hand and said, ‘I just saw your play last week, I just joined Human Rights Watch, and I’m going to Rwanda for two months. The whole audience stood up [and applauded]. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m proved wrong.’ ”


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