This "character" was tortured in Abu Graib, and members of his family were killed because of the U.S. invation of Iraq.
Jessica Blank and Erick Jensen’s “Aftermath” closed this weekend at New York Theater Workshop, and I was able to attend the Sunday matinee.
This work is well-written–or, “well-assembled”, as most of the dialogue is taken from transcriptions of interviews with post-American invasion Iraqi refugees—and the cast is very gifted, each member of the company delivering performances that in turns stirred and disturbed.
I will be honest that I wasn’t sure whether or not I even wanted to see this play. I knew the subject matter would be difficult. My central reservation was tied to a personal (call it a moral) skepticism about making art out of current human atrocities; more specifically, play-acting the lives of people who are currently suffering.
I don’t really have a philosophical place of argument. It’s more a feeling I get. Like when TV shows started incorporating the current Iraq war (still not over, folks) into their plotlines. I find it uncomfortable to watch. By presenting the war as status quo, and by avoiding the war’s political precariousity (that is: a war can only exist as long as it is allowed to exist by a governing body), these shows seemed to offer a tacit endorsement of the war. The war is even necessary in order for these narratives to resonate the way they are intended. It’s topical, and all topical subjects are tied to temporal proximity.
At any rate, my reservations proved both correct and also inept while watching “Aftermath.”
The play presents six stories of real Iraqi refugees; refugees who I assume (perhaps naively, perhaps optimistically) are still alive and living under reprehensible conditions thanks to our country’s war against theirs.
The tactic of the playwrights is fair enough: get the audience to care about the characters (can we call them “characters”?) through humor and amiability, then, once they’re hooked, thread in the conflict, the carnage, the cold hard truths about life, and the reality that our tax dollars were (and still are) at work in ruining the lives of real live people in another country, on another continent, in a place where most of us will never set foot in our entire lives.
And make no mistake: the creators of this show are profiting from its success, and, therefore, these events. It is also sketchy that the dozens of people who were interviewed in order to make this work are not directly credited, nor even thanked in the program, and that Blank and Jensen are given sole credit for “text.” But then, what is it to “thank” someone for a stories such as these? [UPDATE: Please see discussion with Erik Jensen in the comments below, including a clarification of my intentions with this paragraph.]
But I resist faulting “Aftermath” for being manipulative, even though it is that to a degree. There is something in it that goes well beyond the authors’ care to execute their job well; to construct an interesting theatrical structure; to draw in the audience; to tell a story. But this is also where that crisis comes to a fore, in that really all art must on some level entertain, and in order for performance to survive–to reach people, and therefore, touch them–it must be successful.
But what does it mean for this play to be “successful”? And what does it mean to be entertained by these stories? Continue reading