Local theater group benefits women around the world.
Person by person. That’s how a movement starts.
That’s the thinking behind WAM Theatre’s most ambitious production to date, the New England premiere of In Darfur by Winter Miller. A look at genocide, the 80-minute play interweaves an aid worker’s mission to save lives, a journalist’s pursuit to deliver a front-page story, and a Darfuri woman’s quest for safety. Premiering at the Public Theater in New York City to sold-out crowds and critical acclaim, In Darfur is rarely produced. “If you have a choice to see Kiss Me Kate or In Darfur, which are you going to see?” asks Kristen van Ginhoven, co-founder and artistic director of WAM (Women’s Action Movement), who will also direct the production.
Gripped by the play’s powerful message, van Ginhoven feared she did not have the strength to be its messenger. The Canadian transplant admits she has trouble sleeping after watching the news and often tunes it out. But with international crises in Ukraine and Syria, Iraq and Israel, presenting In Darfur for WAM’s fifth anniversary felt vital, she says. “Someone has to step up and produce this.” (The play runs from October 30 through November 16 at Elayne P. Bernstein Center at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.)
Stepping up is something van Ginhoven has been doing a lot since reading the book she says changed her life, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first married couple to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. When the book debuted in 2009, nobody paid attention—except Oprah.
“Oprah gave us big hugs on air and that helped enormously,” says Kristof, a New York Times columnist. “People didn’t just read it and move onto another book. They read it and decided, ‘Damn it, I’m going to do something!’” The stories of women’s courage and resilience in the face of oppression propelled the book to the top of best-seller lists, and organizations sprang up around the world to raise money and take action.
“That’s the ‘action’ in Women’s Action Movement,” says van Ginhoven, who read the book at the right time for her. A theater director who moved to the Berkshires to attend Emerson College, where she received a Presidential Fellowship, van Ginhoven was at a low because her immigration status prevented her from working. As scary as the proposition was, van Ginhoven used her background in theater to join the movement. “I kept going back to the women in the book,” says van Ginhoven, “They did it in circumstances far more challenging than mine.”
WAM uses a double-philanthropic model by creating employment opportunities for local artists and donating a percentage of profits to charities that empower women and girls around the world. Five years in, WAM has hired over 100 artists, donated $10,500 to charity, and produced six Main Stage productions. A quarter of the profits from In Darfur will go to Mother of Peace, a group of 13 women who have chosen to live in an orphanage in South Africa and raise children who have survived the death of a parent, abuse, and/or rape.
Kristof’s response to WAM is joyful. “It warms an author’s heart to know that people have not just enjoyed a book but have been moved to action by it,” he says, adding, “I love the idea of an initiative that builds awareness that also has a revenue component.” Kristof, who credits van Ginhoven as ahead of the curve, has just released A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, a guide on how to take action. He is speaking in the Berkshires on October 16 at 7 p.m. at MCLA’s Amsler Campus Center gymnasium.
In Darfur is coming full circle for WAM. Miller wrote the play after working as Kristof’s research assistant. “When I took her with me to Darfur, this was really against my better judgment,” says Kristof, who won a second Pulitzer for his reporting on Darfur. But he was stunned by the result. “I spent so much time in Darfur, and then to see it told right there onstage,’ he says, “it was incredibly powerful.”
Miller says she writes dialogue to create dialogue and is eager to spark conversation in the Berkshires. “I’m thrilled WAM is producing In Darfur,” she says. “It’s a company with tremendous heart, and I love their mission.” WAM will provide context for the audience who may want to learn more about conflict zones or how to take action. There will be nightly talkbacks with experts and an exhibit of local artists’ response to the material.
But will the audience come? “That’s my biggest fear,” says van Ginhoven who was encouraged by WAM’s panel of Change Makers, extraordinary artists effecting change. Playwright Miller asked the audience, “Who can pledge to attend In Darfur? Who can bring two people? Five? Ten?” Over 100 people raised their hands. And that is how a movement starts.
Writer Jessica Provenz was so inspired by the research for this article that she stepped up and is producing In Darfur.