TAMPA — Is What the Heart Remembers: The Women and Children of Darfur a dance piece? A play? Something else?
The answer is all of the above, and then some. Mainly, though, it is a powerful, solemn work of political theater, an artistic response by University of South Florida professors Jeanne Travers (who did the choreography) and Fanni V. Green (who wrote the text and directed) to the plight of millions of women and children refugees from the war in the Darfur region of Sudan.
"Let me tell you of my Darfur," a voice intones, as the performance begins in Theatre 2, transformed to suggest a refugee camp in Sudan, the largest country in Africa and site of the continent's longest civil war.
Travers and Green divide their story into 12 parts, and they tell it through an amalgam of dance, drama, video and music, played by Barry Skeete on drums and Catherine Costa on wind instruments and vocals. The large cast is made up of theater and dance students from USF.
In "The Road to Water," a graphically violent scene, men in uniforms rape and brutalize women in search of water.
"We are raped. We are discarded. We are the women of the refugee camps," the women chant.
In many ways, this harrowing drama is a companion piece to Ruined, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the rape of women in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A theme of both works is that one thing that separates rich societies from many poor ones is support for women's rights.
What the Heart Remembers can become a bit didactic, directly addressing the audience to do something. At one point near the end of the 70-minute performance (without intermission) a young woman seated in front of me started to text on her phone, as a shroud was draped over a dead body onstage.
The production is impressive. In these penny-pinching times, when many theaters have to cut corners, university theater departments are still capable of high-quality work because they have the institutional resources and faculty talent. G.B. Stephens' scenery is a mix of desert realism for the playing area, framed by abstract pieces made from planks, which serve as a screen for Lynne Wimmer's videos (a woman with a basket on her head walking across the sand is a motif). The lighting (David Williams) and costume (Loren Shaw) design is first rate.
There is a symposium after each performance, and tonight's features Rebecca Tinsley, director of Waging Peace. It was an exhibit of children's drawings by Darfuri refugees put on by Waging Peace and Tinsley's writing that inspired Green and Travers to take on the project.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.