Children play under a mural of St Bakhita, Darfur’s first and only saint, at St Bakhita parish church in Jeberona camp for displaced people outside Khartoum, Sudan
This article is the second in a series on Sudan. Read the first here.
Symbolism in art is often quite powerful; symbolism in political art has to be. People all around the world know this very well, from the street artist in Berlin who painted a mural on the Wall isolating her city from the outside world, to the photographer who captured the image of Pope Francis saying mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, which happens to be guarded by the visage of a 40-foot-tall Che Guevara sculpture. That power comes from the images and associations people make in their minds about what that particular piece of art says, both to themselves and to the wider world.
Recently, here in Ithaca, a place where students and community members are quite familiar with the art of politics and protest, a group of students provided a glimpse into a world so foreign to many in the form of a play — a world that was not supposed to exist anymore. But in The Darfur Compromised, that world is not only alive and kicking, but looking directly at you. This play, written and directed by Cornellians Trevor Stankiewicz ’15 and Rudy Gerson ’15, speaks directly to the audience about how not only the Sudanese Genocide is still occurring, but how it has expanded from the Darfur region to the South Kordofan region too, and how the government of Omar al-Bashir continues to flout international censure for its crimes against humanity.
Produced by Carsonic Productions (and Civic Ensemble and Photosynthesis Productions), the play was made in cooperation with the Caceres-Neuffer Genocide Action Group, which is named after two individuals who dedicated, and ultimately gave, their lives to the work of humanitarian relief.
As more and more images of refugees washed up dead on the shores of Europe appear on television and on social media, perhaps the world has become more aware of the nature of violence: it doesn’t respect borders, it feels no remorse for the deaths of innocents, and it will continue in a self-replicating cycle until some force stops it. Of course, the victims of global violence are well aware of its consequences, but they need others to be aware as well. Burmese Rohingya, Colombian farmers who don’t side with the FARC, Kashmiris, even Palestinians in recent years — these are the images that the world needs to see. They are examples of art defined by politics as much as protest.
Why use theatre to raise awareness of the suffering of the Nuba and Darfuri peoples? In the words of Gerson:
“Theater allows for contradictions to coexist. There’s no presumption in a play that you’re going to walk away with the problem solved. There is no one right answer, no one truth. More traditional forms of protest have the answer and are asking people to join a specific movement. A play, and especially this one, can rally people like that but also can give audience members more to think about and to reflect on.”
Art may be a form of interaction, but rarely does it talk back.
In the realm of political imagery, time and depth matter. In 1979, for example, the Conservative party’s campaign poster “Labour Isn’t Working” was so effective in the UK because it was timed to coincide with a depressed economy, and its simple photo of an unemployment line didn’t need explaining — it succinctly cut to the heart of Labour’s problems. The Darfur Compromised attempts a similar fusion of time and depth; Bashir’s government just announced a two-month ceasefire, while the world remains captivated by the plight of refugees.
When asked if the play was coming at the right time amid a second Sudanese crisis, Stankiewicz responded:
“It probably isn’t the right time. I wish we had done this 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, or last year. But right now seems to be the second best time. People continue to be killed by their government, they continue to be moved from their homes, and they continue to suffer. As long as those are true, something needs to be done.”
After premiering in Ithaca, the play will appear in off-Broadway theaters in New York City. The producers are hoping that it will generate considerable interest, so that when they eventually take the production overseas to be performed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it will be traveling with weight behind it. That, as viewers can attest, won’t be difficult. The play imparts a knowledge that is at once enlightening and perturbing. It discomforts you in the right way. And for political art, that’s the whole point.
Michael Alter is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government and Economics with a minor in History.