Theater and dance piece for Darfur

When he was 16, USF alumnus Mogtaba Mokhtar Maki had to choose between fleeing his homeland of Sudan or fighting in the country’s civil war.

“The government drafts you, and they don’t even give you enough training,” Maki said. “On the first week you are there, you are killed.”

Maki – a former student at Omdurman Islamic University in Khartoum who opposed the war – decided to escape. He crossed a ferry into Egypt, where he lived in a Cairo U.N. refugee camp for two years before relocating to Tampa.

Now, 11 years later, Maki will participate in “What the Heart Remembers: Women and Children of Darfur” – a USF School of Theatre and Dance production that combines dance, storytelling and music to tell the story of Darfur refugees.

The production was inspired by a collection of drawings by Darfur children in Chad refugee camps that illustrate war atrocities.

Some of these pictures were displayed in the USF Library in January 2009, and the collection of more than 500 drawings will be donated to the USF Libraries’ Holocaust and Genocide Center.

Fanni Green, director of the event and assistant professor of the School of Theatre and Dance, said she researched Darfur refugees to write the play’s script, stories, poems and monologues.

“It was the eyes of the women and children in the pictures I saw during my research that intrigued me,” Green said. “I wanted to put some words to the faces.”

Jeanne Travers, choreographer and assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, said she had wanted to work with Green for a long time. This socially charged production provided the perfect opportunity.

“At this point in my career, I’m more inclined to focus my work on social issues,” Travers said.

Still, Travers said it was somewhat challenging to choreograph dance in a genocide setting.

“I had the dancers exploring their own, authentic movements,” Travers said. “They needed to know in their bodies how some of the dynamics work, like fighting, attacking (and) fleeing. Then, I began to form the structure of the choreography.”

Travers and Green said they prefer to call “What the Heart Remembers” a theater-dance production because it involves both formats. The piece has other flourishes like a live percussionist and flutist, and reflected images of Utah landscapes meant to resemble Africa.

“We have dancers speaking, actors and actresses dancing – everyone is singing,” Green said.

Maki was initially asked to share his experience as a “Lost Boy of Sudan” to assist the cast’s research, but was invited to perform in the play.

“He does some small pieces and speaks in Arabic,” Green said. “We thought it would add content to the play.”

Samantha Etienne, a senior majoring in theater and the play’s research assistant, said the production required intense preparation and hard work.

“It definitely took me out of my comfort zone,” Etienne said. “No one likes to showcase pain in public, but with this production, you have to do it.”

Jermaine Thornton, a senior majoring in dance, said the play was challenging but helped him clarify the complicated Darfur conflict.

“I learned about the culture of Sudan as well,” Thornton said. “This project has actually opened my eyes to a lot – we can do something about the conflict and we need to.”

Each of the seven performances of “What the Heart Remembers” will be followed by a symposium with a different speaker. Maki will talk after the first performance Tuesday.

Journalist Rebecca Tinsley will speak Friday about directing Network for Africa and Waging Peace, which currently holds the collection of Sudanese children’s drawings. Both organizations combat violence and genocide in African countries like Chad.

Maki said he is happy to participate in the play because it might raise students’ awareness.

“Many people don’t care or do anything about the situation in my country because they don’t know,” Maki said. “Projects like this allow people to see what’s happening and then … do something about it, hopefully.”

Green said creating “What the Heart Remembers” was her own way of doing something about the Darfur crisis.

“If you have lost your home – if you have been tortured, and raped, and separated from your family – what are the things you remember and what are the things that you carry in your heart?” Green said. “That’s what I wanted to explore and put out there.”

Maki said what his heart remembers is home, and he hopes to return to Sudan after graduating from dental school.

“One day when it isn’t dangerous anymore, I want to go back and visit,” Maki said. “Because it is home, you know, your whole life is there and you still have that thing in your heart. Everyone wants to go back home.”

“What The Heart Remembers” will be performed Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in Theatre 2, with additional showings Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Advance tickets cost $8 for students and seniors and $12 for general admission. Tickets cost $10 for students and seniors and $15 for general admission the day of the show.