Play puts a human face on Darfur | St. Louis Public Radio

Play puts a human face on Darfur

May 15, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Cecilia Nadal, the founder of Gitana Productions, asked me to write a play about the genocide in Darfur. Many months later -- more than I care to count -- the play is finished and in rehearsals. What a journey between the asking and the actual production!

In researching for this play, I spoke to a doctor in Germany and exchanged emails with a doctor in England. I interviewed Brian Steidle and his sister Gretchen who produced the film "The Devil Came on Horseback." I interviewed Samuel Totten, genocide expert, and Daoud Hari, genocide survivor.

I corresponded with aid worker, journalist and photographer Gina Brammucci, who spent time in Darfur doing aid worker and wrote beautiful, moving accounts of her time there. Her stories, writings and photographs were a great source of inspiration and information.

I drove 250 miles with the producer to interview refugees in Kansas City who had actually been able to get out of Darfur. The Darfuri people there were very welcoming. They even allowed us to try on their clothing, called toubs, which are gorgeous. They helped us put on the toubs while they shared their personal tales with us. Slowly, I began to understand who they really are.

Actress and choreographer Vivian Watt performs in "Complacency of Silence: Darfur."
Credit Provided bt Gitana Productions

Every one of these people was passionately articulate about Darfur and generous with their time and stories. I hope there is a little bit of each of them in the play.

Having gathered all the information and stories, I felt overwhelmed. How was I going to get people to care?

I believe humans are, by nature, programmed to help each other, to rescue the person in danger. However, the world we live in is so fast and so inundated with information that it takes a lot to get our attention anymore, a lot to get us to really care. The politics that led to the genocide are long and complicated and difficult to portray on stage -- though they do appear.

I decided to focus on the people. I wanted the audience to get to know Darfuri people, before they became victims and statistics on the evening news. When I went back to get more information on life before the genocide, I found a love story. From that grew a family. I took all of the information I had and created composite characters who live and breathe and think and feel just like we do. Everything in the play -- all of the events -- are actual documented events. But they are told through the lives of this fictional family.

That is, except for Gina. Besides being an aid worker, Gina also writes beautifully and, most of the time in the play, I have let her speak for herself.

Gina's co-worker Diego generously allowed us to use his song "The Dry Season" as one of our songs in the play, as well as a piece of his poetry. I have been very blessed to have so many people who have been in close contact with the Darfuri people contribute to this process. It has given the production a real authenticity and a personality.

The cast is exceptional: Briston Ashe; Jamie Fritz; Thomasina Clark; Joel King; Susanne Yatim; Vivian Watt and Eddie Webb. We also have Myah Maedell playing the drums.

In addition to our professional actors, we have added teens from Gitana Productions' "Global Education through the Arts" program, which teaches African-American teens and African refugee teens how to understand one another through dance and drama. Their presence on stage marks a remarkable transformation for most of them.

Despite the horrible things that happen to the characters in the play, ultimately, the play is very uplifting and, I hope, inspiring. I also hope that by seeing the performance, audience members will identify with the Darfur people and move the audience to take action.

The people I have come in contact with essentially took me to Darfur. They told me what it smells like there, what the dirt feels like. These are the everyday details you cannot read in a book or a newspaper.

That has been my journey and I am excited to take the audience of "Complacency of Silence: Darfur" on that journey as well.

To see the play

What: Complacency of Silence: Darfur

When:  May 23 through June 8 ; on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Where: St. Louis University Theater, 3733 West Pine Mall (Xavier Hall)

How much: $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under (parental guidance is suggested).

More information:  www.gitana-inc.org or call Gitana at (314) 721-6556 or Metrotix at (314) 534-1111.

Lee Patton Chiles is a playwright.