I worked for a year as a News Clerk on the International Desk of The New York Times. I was a link on the phone to reporters in remote places as they covered war, famine, natural disasters, coups, epidemics, treaties and occasionally a feel-good story of hope or curiosity. I knew that journalism was the sensible profession, but what I loved is theater, and I left to pursue it.
A few years later, armed with a Master’s in playwriting I returned to the Times. With no small amount of what I’ll call perfect timing, I scored a coveted job as Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas Kristof’s research assistant. In the interview Kristof asked, “I want to mentor a journalist, but you’re a playwright, why should I choose you?” With great sincerity I answered, “Playwriting and journalism are two sides of the same coin--the former requires facts: the truth of the where, when, how variety. The latter depends on facts and truth of the emotional and psychological sort.”
During my four-year tenure, Kristof was writing about most injustices under the sun worldwide, and specifically, the unfolding genocide in Darfur, Sudan. When I won a commission to write my play about genocide, In Darfur, I convinced Kristof to let me travel with him to the Sudan border. I observed Kristof, to see how he chose what to cover and when.
When Kristof would go off to cover a story in a war zone, I was reminded of the cruel fate of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was taken hostage by Al Qaeda. Instead of being ransomed--exchanged for money, weapons or prisoners--as had been typical for decades, Al Qaeda released a gruesome video showing Pearl’s decapitation. Right then, in 2002, the rules of war—the ‘immunity’ Western journalists and aid workers once believed they had—had shifted. It was sobering and terrifying; these war reporters were the “good guys” and ever more frequently, they were murdered. Over time, more names were added, sometimes it was tourists or intrepid hikers in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes seasoned reporters. The list of the captured and not returned lengthened.
More than a decade after the murder of Daniel Pearl, I was still asking myself the same questions, does anyone really know what they’re getting into, do they pretend it can’t happen to them? What about the people who are captured, manage to be returned home and then go back to the front lines and are captured and never return? What do people do in captivity when their survival is tenuous? I read about about Times reporters who’d been held for a short time and wondered how they passed the time. I read about war journalist James Foley captured with other reporters in Libya and held for 44 days, then released. He returned to Libya, and then traveled to Syria, where he and other hostages were held by ISIL. After months in captivity in a group, Foley was beheaded on video. I couldn’t help thinking about what his days were like, how did he hold on as long as he did, and with grace?
I wrote No One Is Forgotten in a single week in 2015, like some kind of literary Athena, it climbed right out of me. This was before the ascension of Trump to the highest office and the plummeting descent into the obstruction of truth and the censorship of American reporters in America. The play had readings at theaters nationwide, audience response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Artistic Directors around the country said they wanted to produce the play, next season. Or the next, next season, or the one after that. Honestly, I could name dozens of excellent plays by peers which are languishing; we have a remarkable supply of gifted playwrights and plays and not enough theater slots. So I began thinking about self-producing.
And then the world was stunned by the audacity of the attack on Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. As the BBC reported, 'On 2 October, Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known journalist and critic of the Saudi government, walked into the country’s consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered.' The White House didn’t care, they looked the other way, because they want Saudi oil. There was a blatant, top-level disregard for life and truth. What if that was your lover, parent, sister, brother or friend?
What if it was you?
What if you lost your freedom in an instant, waking in a cell with another person? Where are you? Will you see your family again? These were the questions that have kept me up at night, as violence against journalists worldwide, and here in the U.S. has visibly risen. In December 2018, the group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced the U.S. is now the 5th most dangerous country in the world, after Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico and Yemen and in a tie with India! Most people are shocked when you tell them that. In total, RSF recorded 80 journalists murdered in 2018; 61% of whom were targeted for their reporting, and an additional 348 detained and 60 held hostage. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported the number of journalists ”killed in reprisals for their work nearly doubled worldwide compared to 2017.” This should terrify you if you care about freedom.
Our president has barred journalists from press coverage, called the press “The enemy of the American people,” and encouraged violence against journalists. The U.N. expressed fear that Trump’s attacks against the press “increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”
I believe that for us to look away, to pretend this violence and censorship will abate and we will have a free press is to do so at our own peril, and at great risk to others worldwide in much less secure circumstances.
I never intended to be a producer or a director, but I didn’t want to wait any longer; the time is now for this play.
- Winter Miller