I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
Winter Miller stood out among the new playwrights seated around my seminar table at Columbia seven years ago. She had white-blonde spiky hair, a wicked sense of humor, and an outrageously bold intelligence—”sassy” would be the 1940s word for it. She was a fresh talent, and her work was a mix of black humor and a complicated look at sexual identity. She also had a real-world “day job” at the New York Times working for Nicholas Kristof, who won a 2006 Pulitzer prize for his reports from Darfur.
After graduating, Miller quickly became part of the new group of playwrights making the scene in New York. She is a member of 13P, an extraordinary company devoted to doing new work. Her Penetration Play presented a daring, dark, and disturbingly unexpected sexual triangle and established her as a smart, hip, new writer.
Her day job has also continued—she has done interviews for the Times and starts on the City desk this fall.
This spring, Miller’s play In Darfur was given a workshop production at The Public Theatre and was performed this summer at the Delacorte in Central Park before an audience of 1,800 people. It was a project that she started with The Guthrie Theatre, with the collaboration of Kristof, who took her to Africa to see the devastation.
I’m not sure I was prepared for the power of the play that I saw. It presented three characters: a journalist determined to tell the story of the genocide; a doctor working to just keep people going; and an African woman who risks her life to talk to the journalist. The genocide in Darfur was presented in stark, complicated, and highly emotional terms. Never didactic, but nevertheless a call to action, this was a profoundly theatrical piece rooted always in the truth of the story. I was knocked out. The Public had given it a sensational production—and had presented an important new piece.
There is a real excitement when you see a writer “come of age”—take on a big subject and pull it off. It also signals to me a new beginning of a kind of theatrical exploration that looks at tough political issues. We need more of that right now. I undertook this interview as a former teacher, friend, and fan.
Winter Miller Do you know that I’m going to Uganda on Saturday? I’m packing in the vegetables, because I’ll be eating granola bars for the next three weeks.
Evangeline Morphos What’s taking you there?
WM A group called Voices of Uganda is making a documentary using theater to explore the lives of teenagers affected by war and child soldiering in northern Uganda. They’re bringing me along because of my Darfur play. We’ll work with about a dozen teenagers. I’m to write two short plays for the kids to act out for their communities: one on AIDS, the other on peace-building.
EM And some of them have been soldiers, and some are refugees?
WM They’re all internally displaced persons, which is like being a refugee in your own country, but worse. We thought they were English-speaking, but apparently they’re not. So we’ll have to understand their stories through mime, repetition, acting out a scenario, or mixing the Acholi language, Luo, with English, really I have no idea.
EM Will you have a translator?
WM I don’t know! We’ve been told how to talk to the children, what’s appropriate and what’s not. So my guess is that someone will be there to monitor—
EM So what is not appropriate? These kids have probably seen more than—
WM Exactly. But the idea is to be respectful, that’s the first tenet. If they share something, do not share what you think is a similar experience. It’s not for us to talk about our lives, but to try to absorb the information they’re giving us and create a comfortable environment for them.
EM If you’re doing a play, though, about AIDS or sexuality, what is your position as the author relative to the topic? What if they want to talk about rape, or about being abandoned, or kidnapped?
WM That’s something that we have to feel out. There’s a psychologist the group can use as a resource, who’s familiar with the population. The idea is to go back to your reserve group intellect, and say, “This came up and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. What do we do?”
EM Somewhat different, isn’t it? The American or Western impulse in theater is self-exploration, empathy, sharing. The group shares their individual experiences, and it’s a confessional.
WM You’re absolutely right; it’s anti-naturalism. We are writing topic plays, we are to take the pulse of the group. If they want to say, about AIDS, that abstinence is the way to go, I’m supposed to help them write a play about abstinence, period.
EM That’s true of so many international situations. We need to understand theirpositions, as opposed to imposing our own.
WM I heard a story about people who taught sex education in a village and used bananas to show the women how to use condoms. An uproar ensued.
EM They thought it was totemic—I’ve heard that.
WM It makes perfect sense if you’re thinking about amulets, totems, and all of that. Nick [Kristof] was telling me about some well-meaning NGO that was providing a crop to an impoverished area in Africa. It’s easy to grow, would feed a lot of people, and agriculturally made sense. But in the community, this was seen as poor people’s food. So nobody would harvest it. It was an entire waste.
EM What’s astonishing about your play In Darfur is that you have a character struggling with those issues—What does she need to know about the people and the situation in Darfur in order to report on it? What are the limits of empathy? Accuracy? When does a reporter become an intruder? Raising those questions was one of the play’s triumphs.
WM Thanks. I often struggle with questions of morality on the individual level: What is the right choice? I’m exploring that in most anything I write.
EM Where does our sense of morality conflict with another society’s? In Darfur’s three characters are in a tangle internally about making the right choice: the journalist with professional standards, the doctor with his own sense of medical ethics. Do you interfere, do you impose? The African woman who wants both to get her story across and protect herself. Those conflicting impulses criss-cross throughout the play.
WM No one gets off scot-free. You could twist these three characters’ circumstances and see that when faced with a decision, each made a move that perhaps they wish they hadn’t made. You have the doctor—an aid worker—who has just broken up with his fiancée; he is running from something. What real reasons did he have for going to this country? They were selfish. He had to “find himself,” or “find something greater than himself” in order to find his humanity.
EM And yet the audience sees his actions as selfless.
WM They’re both selfless and selfish. Hawa, the Darfuri refugee, has the most to lose. She risks a great deal to tell her story so that the world will learn about what is happening in Darfur. I didn’t want to make her into some kind of saint. But, where is her flaw? That came when I established a relationship with another Darfuri woman. In a situation where push comes to shove, Hawa leaves her behind because she has to save herself. Then, in essence, the question that the journalist faces is whether or not to sacrifice the safety of one person for the good of many. That and the journalist knows she can’t tell the story if she’s dead.
EM She’s behaving the way many people would behave.
WM Yes, first, would any of us be any different? And second, she left her home to report this story. She went where other people weren’t going; she put her life in danger in order to tell it.
EM Years ago I heard the great critic I. A. Richards speak at Harvard; this was well before your time. (laughter) He was even ancient by the time I heard him. He talked about the complementary principle in physics. The world of physics was cracked wide open when people stopped arguing about whether light was waves or particles and understood that it could be both. He said that in great literature, the same principle applies—a character can be both self-preserving and selflessly noble. Your play captures that issue of a character simultaneously maintaining two seemingly contradictory positions. It’s psychologically very sophisticated.
WM It’s funny to hear you say that because I always wondered what I was getting out of my dual majors in women’s studies and theater. There was this idea of the “both-and” perspective in sociology that opened up a whole world by getting rid of “either-or.” The book Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins viewed oppression as a matrix. Different circumstances joined others, circles overlapped. If you’re a woman, what oppressions do you face? And if you’re a black woman, how do all these levels of societal oppression add up? It gave this “both-and” perspective.
EM In writing this play you were both a playwright and a journalist. To what extent do you as a playwright impose on yourself the standards of a journalist? I never felt that you were manipulating the plot, or taking a dramatically easy way out. You were doing the truthfully necessary thing, testing it against the question: Is this supportable? That perspective took the writing to a higher level.
WM If I was going to write about the genocide in Darfur, I had to be true to the environment. We cannot benefit from what we learn if we believe we have an unreliable narrator, one who sometimes tells you one thing and then tells you another. If any part of the play left you thinking, “That could never happen,” I would have failed. This genocide is going on now; this is the real thing, and we as people should be aware of it. Whether or not we act on it, we ought to know. And then we ought to choose what or what not to do. It would be a disservice to the audience to have them question its existence. By the way, I had stellarcollaborators on this.
EM Let’s talk about the origins of the play. Your previous work dealt with issues of women’s sexual identity within the context of complicated urban and suburban situations. Suddenly we get this really political, journalistic, globalsubject matter.
I know that you’ve been working with Nicholas Kristof, who brought the situation in Darfur to the attention of the American public. Tell me about your journey to this play. Young, contemporary American playwrights are not usually looking at moral, global, governmental issues.
WM You just can’t predict—it doesn’t make any sense that I would end up being Nick Kristof’s assistant. It was an accident of timing and place. I worked for a year at the New York Times on the foreign desk as a news clerk. At that time, Nick was in Asia, so I didn’t know him. I would call and apologize for waking him so that an editor could ask him a question. When I went to grad school at Columbia, I worked at the foreign desk on the weekends.
EM Let me backtrack for a minute. When you started at the foreign desk, did you know you wanted to be a playwright?
WM No. I was acting. I’d wanted to be an actor since I was seven, when I was in a community production in Deerfield, Massachusetts. I remember at the cast party, I somehow found a Rolling Rock. My parents were like, “What’s the kid doing with a beer?” (laughter)
EM She’s acting.
WM That’s what I was gearing toward. Junior year at Smith, I studied sex workers in Poland, Germany, Amsterdam, and London, and wrote a play in their voices. It became a one-woman show that I performed. It was terrible. (laughter) I didn’t know what I was doing. But I’ve always looked for where the most vulnerable moments are—where’s the most fear? And then tried to walk into it. The nice thing about switching over to playwriting was that the stuff I was trying to do in front of people as an actor, I could now do at home, in my living room. That afforded me a much greater ability to take risks.
EM Let’s go back to how the Darfur play started.
WM Yeah, so Nick was covering Darfur in his column, the sort of lone wolf in the wilderness. He was—
EM The first one out there.
WM Yeah, and he wasn’t willing to give up. So I spent a lot of my time thinking about it, researching it. The same questions that the editor was asking in the play, I was asking of Nick: What do you mean, this happened to this many people, how do you know, if nobody’s keeping track of how many people are dead, how can you use this number? I had never had an interest in foreign countries, I was an isolationist—solve the problems in this country first, we need to stop interfering! Just get out!
EM This was a turning point?
WM I really admired Nick for his commitment.
EM He did not let up. It was not just that he covered it for as long as it was of general interest. He is with it—
WM It’s almost never been of interest to the general public, and he still covers it.
EM When did the idea of writing a play happen?
WM The Guthrie and PlayLabs in Minneapolis had a two-headed challenge in which a playwright joins up with another person, another head, and has a dialogue with them, or writes a play with them, or whatever. I was spending more time with Nick than with anyone else in my life. So he seemed the perfect person. Darfur was unfolding and it was so complex: Why were people doing this? What do you mean they’re all the same color and they all speak Arabic? What are the rules of this war? And then understanding: It’s not a war. It’s a genocide. I wrote the proposal in a couple of hours one afternoon and assumed there was no way in hell I’d get picked. But, to my great surprise, I was—and the process began.
EM Had you traveled to Darfur yet?
WM No. It’s really hard to get there. It’s hard to get a visa. It’s dangerous. I never would have gone alone.
EM What happened when you started to work on the play?
WM First I had an amazing collaborative team, and that started in Minneapolis. The director [Joanna Settle] was a love match. We didn’t know each other; it was a blind date. When I went out there, I hadn’t yet written the play. This goes back to going to Chad. I didn’t feel that I could write this play unless I was on the soil. So I had to convince Nick to take me with him on his next trip. I knew stats, but I didn’t know what the air smelled like, what it felt like, so I waited. But we didn’t get over there until March, and the play was due in May, and I just said, “I don’t have it.” They were cool; they said, “Bring it with you on July 11 when you arrive, and by the way, there will be a public reading on the 21st.” By “they” I mean Polly Carl, the head of the Playwrights Lab and a phenomenal dramaturg, Joanna Settle, and Michael Dixon, who was at the Guthrie at the time. But I said to Joanna, I have three long monologues, and occasionally they intersect, because I can’t see how these people would talk to one another, it’s not plausible.
EM And the structure ended up being completely different. It really had a very traditional interaction, with a real narrative.
WM Yeah, but I showed up with a terrible first draft, and I warned them, I said, “It’s going to be a mess.” And they were like, “That’s okay!”
EM Now, had you interpolated what you thought the journalist’s position would be from what you already knew of the situation from Nick?
WM I interviewed a bunch of reporters to find out, what would you do in this situation? When you’ve been in it before, how did you act? I was always asking Nick questions of morality: What do you do when you see someone who you know, if you could get them to a hospital, would live.
EM Was the character of the African woman, Hawa, in place?
WM All three characters were in place in the proposal. Hawa is based on a real person. She’s in a story that Nick wrote, a college-educated Darfuri woman who had been raped and ended up in a clinic. Doctors had filed some kind of report saying what had happened, and officers came and arrested her, handcuffed her to the bed. The character of Hawa that we see in the play is different, the events were changed and all of that.
EM You took on the journalist’s obligation of keeping her individual integrity. We like to think about artistic license, but in this case, you kept her individuality. Did you meet her when you finally traveled there?
WM No. I don’t know what became of her.
EM What did you see in Chad that opened up the play’s structure for you? How was it different from what you expected? When you got there, what happened?
WM There were a few things. The physical landscape was unlike anything I could have imagined. I thought there would be something forgiving in the land. I could not figure out how anyone could grow anything there. On one level you think: how do they do it? These people who have gone through unspeakable horrors, how do they then get up in the morning and get through their day in the camp when they don’t have food? They have whatever’s given them by aid, but they have no way of cultivating it. They have no firewood, and every time they go out to get it, they risk getting raped or killed.
EM That was conveyed so strongly in the play’s direction. Not only in the script itself but with sensory elements—the aridity, the bleakness, even the fact that the playing area was configured essentially along the horizontal—you had this sense of expanse. But also the physicality of Rutina Wesley, the actress playing Hawa, the way she moved was … damaged. There was a physical pain that went through her.
WM There was that, and I also saw resilience, over and over, in the faces of these African women. There were two girls who were about 16 and 15, and Nick pulled them away from the village, because rape is taboo, even though it’s all around; husbands will not go near wives. It can be a deal breaker. So we talked to these two girls who had been kidnapped by the Janjaweed just 48 hours previously. And they were telling us how many men there were, and that they had just been raped over and over. The expression on their faces was not what you see on Oprah, this weepy thing. It was saying what was, and it was soft, but they broke all of these taboos to say it to a white man, a reporter. So they had some sense that telling their story meant some good. That it could be larger. It could bring help. It could do something. And yet what they saw each day was nothing.
EM Do the people there believe that we know more than we do? Or care more than we do? Or do they believe that the more they tell; we will rise to it?
WM Certainly many Africans have believed that when the Westerner comes in with camera equipment, “My story’s going to get out. If people knew about this, they couldn’t possibly let it go on.”
EM The article in the Times, at the beginning of the summer, about how we psychologically respond to—
WM Mass atrocity—
EM We glaze over on the vastness of numbers. This is something that the playwright can do that the journalist can’t. In showing us one person, we understand and we extrapolate the many.
WM I think a journalist can too. I’ve watched Nick do it over and over again, but he’s got 700 words. As a playwright, I have as many words as I want, and as much negative space. I have audio, silences, and pauses—this interstitial space, how the environment fills in the world.
EM I thought that something happened to you as a playwright, in terms of how you understood the theatricality as well as the reality, the complication of characters. It was clear that something transformative had happened, that this experience was powerful enough to bring out a different kind of expression. You really rose to the occasion.
WM My feelings about the people in Darfur allowed me to get out of my own way and stop asking the question: Why are you writing this and who cares?
EM Tell me about the reading in Central Park.
EM A panel discussion followed that reading, and there was a simultaneous reading in London, at the Donmar Warehouse—a global event! (laughter)
WM Yeah. The panel was just A-1. So 1,800 people came, and after that, Nick said, “I see what you were talking about. It was worth it.” He had been second-guessing himself, saying, I can’t believe I took her on that trip. I had to really badger him to go.
EM Because it was dangerous.
WM Yes. It was dangerous. And yet I was with the best reporter I could possibly be with in that situation. Nick has this amazing sensitivity to the people he’s interviewing, and that was beautiful to watch. It was incredibly impressive, the care he took to protect the people, but also to check with aid groups to see: Is this safe? At the time I was naive enough to think that, by virtue of the color of our skin, we were in less danger than the people we were covering. That was both true and has become untrue.
EM Nick really is a hero.
WM He is. We were in 100-plus degrees in the desert and we’d been in this one camp for hours and hours, and the stories were similar to the ones we’d been hearing all along. Nick wouldn’t stop going. From family to family to family, because he was looking for something even better, more illuminating, more dramatic than what he’d already found. And I was thinking, I’ve heard what he has, and he has a lot. That was in 2006, when he won the Pulitzer for his reporting in Darfur, and it wasn’t just that he deserved it for going and keeping on it, it was that in the field he just doesn’t quit. He never rests on his laurels.
EM It’s the truth telling. How has the response to the play been?
WM The response all along has been favorable, people saying, “I’m so glad I saw this, when’s it going to be done again?”
EM When will it be produced again?
WM No one’s stepped up. Colleges have said they’d like to do it. We may go that route—smaller circuit.
EM That’s how Sam Shepard was done in the ’70s.
WM And Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues has been a real community thing. It doesn’t matter to me how it gets around. I have said all along, to every artistic director I’ve talked to, Please don’t sit on this play. The Guthrie had an option on it, and I said, “I understand if you’re not going to do it. But let the option go. Let someone else do it.”
EM I know that you also work with 13P. That producing group strikes me as such a smart idea. Far too often playwrights are at the mercy of literary managers or the developmental process, but 13P is a company that comes together and says, We’re going to raise the money as a group and do these plays. They did your Penetration Play.
WM That was in November 2004. Everyone felt empowered by the idea that we were taking matters into our own hands. The mantra was: We don’t develop plays; we do them. We were responsible for the production, so there was a lot of hustle, and that appealed to me, because I’ve never had anything drop into my lap.
EM YouTube is all about that. Self-marketing of independent work is increasing.
WM Having a group of people is what made that possible. It’s very much all boats rising with the tide. Lifting as we climb.
EM The Penetration Play has a theme of sexual identity, discovery. You’re now working on a musical.
WM It’s the bane of my existence. If anyone told me how long it takes to actually create a musical, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
EM But again it’s about sexual identity.
WM A 19th-century French hermaphrodite, based on, for all we know, a real person. I read this book by Foucault called Herculine Barbin. It was her journals, and allegedly he found and published them. And I say “allegedly” because who knows?
EM Do you think he made it up?
WM I’m sure he would say he didn’t. (laughter) There was something unlikely about it and yet there’s no reason why it should be unlikely. No one knew that she was a hermaphrodite. She was in a convent school, where they haven’t seen a penis, let alone one that may or may not be a penis—
EM The sexual confusion and identity became much more interesting and dangerous in that setting, and in the 19th century.
WM But at the same time, have we not all felt alien in our bodies? What did falling in love mean for her? How did that define her? For the woman who fell in love with her, what did that make the two of them? What constructs did they have? The expectation was that this other young girl would go off to be married. So she was this combination of what women’s worlds were like then, when it was appropriate to be physically close with women, but what happens when you cross that line?
EM Traditionally, in musicals, we expressionistically sing things that we can’t say in prose.
WM And that is exactly the function here. The songs are monologues. That heightens the theatricality—that’s her version of the aria. It started out with no songs, but as a play, and now there are 15 or 16 songs, but we are still finding that world’s language. First of all, the tale is told in reverse. We go back in time. It has made for the most exciting use of language. Say we have the song come first, and then later in the act what we call a pre-prise, something happening earlier in life, but we’ve already heard the song. It raises complex questions about pacing and tension, telling something backwards. How much do you reveal?
EM You create a sense of discovery at the very beginning. On the surface it seems as if the issue of confused sexual identity in the 19th century is far more luxurious than Darfur. And yet it’s all about—
WM Not for Amandine. To be so Catholic? And potentially abandoned by God? I mean, I’m an atheist. To write a character who is devout, and who struggles with those issues …
EM But in the medieval period through the Renaissance, hell meant separation from God, that desert in which there was no life. People were struggling to stay alive, and maintain their own sense of identity. Maybe I’m trying to find a leitmotif in the work of Winter Miller.
WM I haven’t found it!
EM What do you see in the next three years?
WM I’m about to make a change. I’m getting a really cool opportunity to be an intern reporter on the Metro Desk. Nick is going on book leave and I decided I wanted to do a boot camp. I have been writing stories, and have been studying Nick, but I don’t have real reporting skills, and I am liable to accidentally defame—
EM You do incredible interviews for the Times. What question would you have asked that you wouldn’t want to answer?
WM Oh, God. [Long pause] How do you stay in the game? How do you remain an active creator?
EM Don’t you think you do that? I think you’ll end up straddling artistry and journalism. You will find the medium that is appropriate to the story you want to tell.
WM Well, I’ll tell you something, I would like to do that, but I have this fear that it’s all out of a sense that I might fail at one, so I should have a backup. Regardless of success or failure, how do you get up every day and keep doing what you do? One wants to be under the radar forever, but one wants one’s work produced.
EM I wonder if you’re not at just the right time, because theater is changing. Every medium is up for grabs. As you’re doing interviews for the Times you’re exploring character. As a reporter, what you’re striving for is factual truth. And as a playwright, you strive for emotional truth. So, what’s the next big project?
WM Maybe that’s the question I hoped you wouldn’t ask. I think part of it is still trying to launch this one.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee