Tonight at 10 pm/ET, NBC's ER airs the first of two episodes featuring scenes filmed on location in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Kalahari Desert. The story line: Mekhi Phifer's Dr. Gregory Pratt, making the trek to Darfur to give Carter (Noah Wyle) an assist, finds his eyes opened to the harsh realities, genocide included, that plague the region. The fictional doc, though, was not the only one enlightened by the sobering experience.
"Before I read the script, I had no idea of the atrocities that are going on over there and the masses of people that are displaced," Phifer admits. "It does raise issues. Do we involve the U.S. or do we use independent resources? How do we change this perpetual cycle of genocide that is sort of being overlooked?"
If ER viewers find the faraway situation brought closer to home, it's a mission-accomplished for executive producer David Zabel. "I think the American public is pretty underinformed [about] the slow genocide that's going on, one that very recently started bleeding into [the nation of] Chad," says Zabel. "From a social point of view, we'd like to use our show to educate and inform people about something they need to know about, and hopefully that will activate some people [to get involved]."
Zabel says that such higher-minded storytelling about "larger things going on in the world" should be fair game for ER, "as long as [the stories] overlap with the medicine, which is what our show is about." As it turned out, Pratt's journey of discovery proved rich with on-screen drama. "Mekhi's character becomes, in a way, the eyes of the American audience," says the exec. "Pratt broadens his perspective as we have him see things that he hasn't seen, which is reflective of the audience's perspective as well. It's not just about [ER] doing a 'good deed' by informing the audience, but doing it in a way that serves the dramatic elements of the show and the characters."
This location shoot was not Phifer's first-ever trip to Africa. "I had been there a few years back to Zimbabwe, Zambia so I sort of knew what to expect," shares the actor. Production-wise, however, it was a far cry from just another day at County General. "We had to get so many extras, especially shooting in [the small town of] Kakamas," he reports. "One of the biggest challenges not only for us, but for them was to be on such a high-caliber show having never done something like this before. But they were all diligent in learning and helping us out. Without them and their atmosphere, we would have lost the authenticity [that drove us to go] to Africa in the first place."
What Phifer came away with from this second visit, however, was much more, and much more meaningful, than two episodes' worth of any TV series. "It was spiritual, as was the first time, but it was much more strategic in terms of understanding what I could do to help the situation," he says. Phifer, after all, is chairman of the board of trustees for the Vine Group, a charity dedicated to bringing materials and financial resources to schools in Nigeria. He even has received an honorary doctorate from the country's university, and he has helped fund, through his philanthropic endeavors, a state-of-the-art technology facility at the Polytechnic, Ibadan, which has been christened the Mekhi Phifer Research Center.
"We've been doing a lot to help that community, "he says, "so rather than, 'Wow, look at this!' it was, 'How can I help?'"