We in Silence Hear a Whisper
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2011
Jon Kern's new play We in Silence Hear a Whisper, currently being given its world premiere by The Red Fern Theatre Company, is both a thrilling celebration of the magical power of storytelling and a riveting and jolting examination of the destructive power of hate and intolerance. I highly recommend it.
Kern's subject is the genocide in Darfur, a topic that has been marginalized for too long. Kern doesn't shrink from the politics and economics of this catastrophe, but mostly We in Silence focuses on its alarming human cost, and not simply in terms of sheer numbers of fatalities or sicknesses: this is a play principally about our shared humanity, and how each of us is diminished whenever any of us perishes needlessly.
Our narrator is Halima, a 15-year-old girl living in a refugee camp in Darfur after her village was leveled by the Sudanese. When we meet her she is looking through a pile of limbs for the arm of her brother, Hussein—her mother would like at least some part of him to bury, to put his soul at rest. Halima is brave, earnest, and curious. She stares down death frequently in the play (death takes the menacing form of a Man on a Horse, who seems locked in a sort of ineffable battle for her spirit). But her awe about the wonders around her—butterflies, the sky, a pair of running shoes owned by one of the French doctors in the camp—is what's most admirable about her, and the thought that such a vital and vibrant creature might be snuffed out for no good reason other than what tribe she belongs to is genuinely horrifying. By showing us a single victim (who refuses to be a victim), Kern, in this magnificently surreal play, makes what's happening in Darfur more real to an audience than any documentary or photo essay ever could.
I don't want to give away too much about Kern's constantly surprising script and director Melanie Moyer Willams's splendid realization of it. Let me just give one example of why I was so touched by this piece. There's a scene, early on, where Halima is observing the French doctor and a Senegalese soldier chatting at the refugee camp. The soldier has a revelatory speech about the innate peacefulness of his own people; the Parisian doctor (named Emile) is Chinese. They are talking to each other in French, one presumes, but we hear them in English; Halima tells us
That is not their language.
I like to be near the Doctor and the peacekeeper,
And drink their strange speech.
This dextrous twisting of communication is perhaps the most remarkable feat of Kern's remarkable play: everyone on stage speaks to us in our own language, but we're constantly reminded of the differences that keep us from comprehending each other. Halima has a gift of understanding that too many of us lack.
We in Silence has a fine, fine cast, headed by Keona Welch as Halima, who is old enough to have a BFA from Rutgers and a long list of credits but believably lets us view this play through an authentic innocent's eyes. Stephen Conrad Moore plays the nemesis Man on a Horse, while Parker Leventer, Matthew Park, and Devere Rogers play many different roles each. Special mention must be made of Hansel Tan, who works the life-sized horse puppet that Moore "rides" throughout the play, and Elizabeth Barrett Groth, who designed it. Also impressive are Marie Yokoyama's lighting and Colin J. Whitely's sound, both adding much to the ambience of the piece. Red Fern is supporting Save Darfur in conjunction with this production, and their website is here if you are interested in learning more about this issue.