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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie reading of In Darfur
promises a powerful play

During its approximately one-hour, 30 minute dramatic reading on the Guthrie thrust stage, Winter Miller's new play, In Darfur, throbbed with the tensions and unpredictable terror of life in a United Nations refugee camp, amid ruthless ethnic cleansing. Its sustained tension, well-developed main characters and poetic dialogue all promise a compelling piece of topical theater -if it were to be fully produced.

And therein lies the rub. In Darfur gains traction from the urgent topicality of its subject, on-going genocide, but loses because consciousness-raising and action groups piggy-back on to its readings and essentially eclipse the play.

As people found their Guthrie seats, a projected photo exhibit called "Darfur/Darfur" documents the horrific daily events of life in Darfur. Immediately after the reading, a diverse discussion panel fielded questions from the audience, necessary questions, but none relating to the merits of the play.

And the play does have merit as a stage drama. Three lives intersect at the refugee camp. Hawa, superbly read by Sonja Parks, is a university-educated Darfuri survivor from a village where the Janjaweed galloped in, mowed down the men, smashed babies' skulls and systematically gang-raped women and girls before burning the village. Hawa is pregnant but doesn't know if this is a rape-child, or a tenuous connection to her killed husband. Carlos, ably read by Lee Mark Nelson, abandoned his fiancée in the US to become an aid worker in Darfur, working with damaged women who must cope with pregnancies that are the result of war rape. Maryka, a New York Times reporter, in a strong reading by Annie Enneking, is determined to put a personal face on the daily horrors of genocide and reveal them to the unaware US public in a front page story that will be too compelling to be ignored. Within the camp, Sudanese police monitor and control what goes on. They harass and rape pregnant widows for being pregnant and without husbands. Fueled by a tumble of ambition and idealism, Maryka must weigh ethical decisions that endanger vulnerable lives, but might mobilize a dormant superpower.

Playwright Miller skillfully weaves moments of brief charm and even humor into a dark script that rings with the authenticity of experience in the field.

In Darfur came out of a co-commission by the Guthrie Theater and the Minneapolis Playwrights Center's 2005-2006 Two-Headed Challenge. The program funds a playwright to work in association with the most interesting person she/he knows outside theater. Miller, a New York Times researcher, chose Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff. He helped her get into Darfur to research her subject.

The play has received workshop readings at the Playwrights Center's PlayLabs festival, Hibernatus Interruptus at Geva Theater in Rochester NY, and was featured in the New York Now! festival at the Public /theater in New York City.

Asked if any more readings were planned, Miller, burst out, "No more readings, please. This play begs a full production!"

So far, the Guthrie has not picked up a production of In Darfur, but the Public Theater in New York has shown some interest. Over 600 people came to see the reading on Saturday night at the Guthrie. If and when it gets a full production, In Darfur is likely to attract and reward large crowds with its achingly topical drama.

In Darfur Guthrie Theater, January 26 28, 2007 Guthrie Theater, 818, South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. 612-377-2224. www.guthrietheater.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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