“In Darfur,” by Winter Miller, was ripped from the headlines—of 2004. Unfortunately that doesn’t matter: Sudan’s horrific civil conflicts continue and may intensify despite a wobbly peace agreement reached in 2006. No surprise, then, that actress Mildred Marie Langford—who plays the protagonist, Hawa, in Timeline Theatre’s production—calls this very emotional role “definitely the most rewarding” of her career.
“It’s coming from something that’s really happening in the world,” says Langford of her Darfuri character, whose suffering is immense. “So it’s definitely rooted in honesty. You see after the show, during the talkbacks, how affected people are."
How did Langford, 30, prepare for this challenging part? “I’ve never experienced anything like this,” she says, “so how do you really tell that? Having not been to the country? So I’d pray about that a lot, really work on being as honest as I could. There were times, some scenes, that would just be really hard, and shaking that off even after the scene was over with, letting that go….” Her voice trails off.
Dialect coach Eva Breneman helped with the Darfuri accent. And religion, Langford says, very much informs her craft, manifested in this role by an inflected but grave stillness. “Before the show,” she says, “I have 15 or 20 minutes to center myself. And a lot of that is focusing on what I’m about to do and thanking God for it. I had a really good friend who put acting in a different perspective for me. He told me that when he goes out onstage to perform, that that is a form of praise and worship for him. It is God who has given us the gifts and the talent that we are able to share with the audience.”
Langford’s upcoming roles couldn’t be much different from Hawa. In May, as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Series, she plays the complex title character in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Venus.” Inspired by true-life “freak” Saartjie Baartman—the Hottentot Venus—the concept is fascinating but highly cringe-worthy: beginning in 1810, this South African slave was exhibited in London, partly for her large posterior. Parks extrapolates on that narrative and makes Venus complicit in her own exploitation.
Starting in mid-March, Langford plays the villain in Adventure Stage’s “Sinbad: The Untold Tale,” a play by Charles Way recommended for ages nine and up. “I play Jan Shah, an evil sorceress,” Langford says. “I’ve never actually played anyone so evil. She’s very sarcastic, which I like!” The challenge here is figuring out her character’s physicality. “There’s a moment in the show where Jan Shah is old—basically what she’s trying to do is gain immortality from [the play’s heroine] Ittifaq. She’s trying to drink her blood so she can become immortal.” Sounds like a vampire… “Very! Jan Shah is also young—once she gets that blood!”
Virginia native Langford moved to Chicago in 2007, after a summer intensive workshop at Steppenwolf in 2006. “I just fell in love with the city,” she says. “I think coming here was meant to be. Honestly, I’ve been very blessed to work very consistently since I got here.” Asked where she sees herself in ten years, Langford says, “I’d love to continue to work in different places. Broadway is a huge goal for me and has been since high school. So, performing in New York. And possibly getting out to the west coast, maybe LA. Maybe some films…? Good-quality films!” Langford may be starry-eyed, but in her case it’s for good reason.