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?
We have a wealth of conflicting feelings toward actors in the theater. Mainly their job is to entice, to be attractive and to entertain; to be good at captivating an audience. Does this make sense in a work that is about such real and living suffering? I suppose I’m questioning whether or not these events should have been made into a “play” at all, at least, not right now. Wouldn’t this subject be best served by journalism?
And there is a way these actors can make real the stories that might just roll across the glaze of our eyes on the computer as a hyperlink headline. The play succeeds in getting us to care about these people, to feel their humanity, and to care about their humanity when it is tortured, wounded, and suffering. But does this necessarily translate to care for the real thing? The real event? The real lives?
Maybe I’m just appalled that it might actually take a theatrical work to show Americans that the cost for this kind of war is far more damning that just the lives or our own troops, or the enormous financial loss (which is outrageous on its own, not just as debt to the government, but as profit to private interests, and to the real people behind those private interests): the loss is human; total; it cannot be undone, and these people’s loved ones, families, friends and neighbors caught up in the current of a war that could have been prevented and arguably never should have happened can never be brought back to life; we can never regain those lives, nor undo the heinous manner in which they came to end.
Maybe I’m angry that we just may need this kind of play.
It was jarring when a woman behind me began applauding after one of the actors playing a middle-aged Iraqi who owned a pharmacy delivered a gut-wrenching tirade against the kind of lawless, mindless, and soul-numbing violence that has been stirred up directly as a result of the U.S. -led occupation. She applauded; but she was the only one. And maybe she was applauding the message, and not the method.
At any rate, this moment stirred exactly my fear about this event being turned—however expertly—into art.
And I didn’t want to experience the range of emotions that theater brings—a range, by the way, that often blindly strides across the subjective boundary delineated by the work of theater at hand (i.e. am I sexually attracted to one of the actors, am I thinking of my own goals and aspirations, what do I think of government-subsidized theater, what restaurant will I eat at later)—during a play like this.
Nor do I know just how helpful it is to willfully subject ourselves to this kind of excruciating work. Does it make us go out there and fight to end this war once and for all, and to give restitution to the Iraqi’s whose lives we have sickeningly altered forever? Probably not. It did make me give ten dollars after the show to a fund that goes to helping the living refugees of this war. Is that enough? Will that satiate my guilt, and my genuine, nauseating sorrow for this maddening atrocity that I could not stop, or did not do enough to stop?
Or, finally, maybe I’m trying to escape my responsibility by drawing this jagged line between art and reality; between my real experience in the theater and what I perceive to be the work; not wanting one to mix with the other. Yet I find the conflation of real and play in the hands of this work equally troubling.
I don’t know.