Joining Tales of Humanitarian Leadersip

Much like In Conflict, a collection of modern soldier accounts currently playing at Culture Project, Journeys is a theatrical work heavily grounded in journalism. Through the access provided by Vital Voices Global Partnership, an NGO advocating women's leadership, the seven participating playwrights based their on-stage narratives on first-hand interviews with their subjects. In a collection of seven monologues, Journeys showcases the real-life stories of women activists from Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Guatemala. During its three-week run at La MaMa, the work is divided into two blocks that are performed at separate times; Series A includes the stories of Inez McCormack of Northern Ireland, Mu Socha of Cambodia and Mukhtaran Mai of Pakistan, while Series B includes the remaining four monologues. The decision to split the work is a wise one, as the emotionally hefty, often heartbreakingly understated nature of the narratives requires an audience to consider each as an independent entity.

Giving an artistic context to these narratives is, in fact, so valuable an effort that one begins to wish for the opportunity to hear these stories directly from the women who lived them. At points, the work's reportorial approach and strict monologue format awaken questions about the necessity of its theatrical execution.

Series A begins with the story of Inez McCormack, an Irish writer and human rights activist who has led grassroots peace-building and labor union efforts in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s. McCormack is portrayed by Terry Donnelly, who approaches her subject's collected energy with unassuming rhetorical gestures. When she recalls a friend's murder or a police mob's attack, a simple shake of the head shows her struggle to comprehend the violence. Donnelly's portrayal reflects deep admiration for her character's wisdom, but because Carol K. Mack's narrative jumps frequently from scene to scene and often focuses on individuals other than McCormack, it also seems to run a tad too long.

The story of Mu Sochua, founder of the Cambodian women's rights movement and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, follows McCormack's. Catherine Filloux's text is notably lyrical, effectively connecting her character's gentle rhetoric with Cambodian mythology. As Mu (Christine Toy Johnson) describes the ceremony she conducts to help rescued trafficking victims rediscover their souls, the audience is immediately drawn to her world. Johnson's delivery never wavers from her composed, melodic tone, but as she narrates Mu's exploration of a country in crisis, her eyes reflect the pain driving her humanitarianism.

Perhaps because writer Susan Yankowitz took the approach of a chronological, first-person narrative to Pakistani women's right activist Mukhtaran Mai's story, her segment is also the most affecting of the three. The monologue allows actor Reena Shah to re-enact several scenes of the story and thus keep the audience engaged throughout. While Shah delivers a carefully studied performance that translates into authentic emotion, writer Yankowitz also had the most powerful narrative to work with; born into a low caste in Pakistan without an education or a comprehension of human rights, Mai was raped by four men of a neighboring tribe. But instead of committing suicide or remaining silent in fear of dishonor, Mai went on to become the first woman in the country to take her case into court. She has later worked actively on improving the rights and education level in Pakistan.

The stage is unadorned, short of a chair and a white background screen that provides a canvas to a set of colored, subtly changing lights. An elevated structure also allows each actress to move between different sections of the stage as their narratives progress. The chair, located at floor level, helps them speak intimately to the audience, while the elevated portion of the stage offers a setting for more climactic or declarative moments.

Aside from entrances and exits, no two characters appear onstage simultaneously. Their stories are, after all, defined by their realism. When the three actresses of Series A took the stage for a curtain call, however, I found myself wondering how their exceptional characters would have responded to one another's struggles in an imagined conversation. What separates traditional nonfiction from theater is, after all, their differing levels of allowed artistic freedom. Journeys reflects an invaluable effort, but had its writers been given the freedom of a more experimental structure, its artistry could have more closely matched its sources of inspiration.

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