Since September 11th, a cultural shift has occured in which the theatre has become -more than usual – the staging ground for angst about our country’s political situation. The kick-off was Tony Kushner’s Homebody/ Kabul, a beautiful, ambitious play about one woman’s journey from England to Afghanistan, which opened in December 2001 and was actually written well before the events of 9/11 by the amazingly prescient Kushner. The trend was still visible last season, when the Public Theater staged both Tim Robbins’ Embedded, a farce about the war in Iraq, and Guinea Pig Solo, a Labyrinth Theater project about a traumatized soldier trying to reclaim his life in New York City after serving in Afghanistan.
Now, at the Culture Project, there is Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, a transfer from London’s West End about the devastating situation in Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners—who have not been proven guilty of their accused crimes or been given access to legal representation—are being held indefinitely by the U.S. government. The play, a collaboration between British journalist Victoria Brittain and South African novelist Gillian Slovo, is culled from spoken and written evidence: letters from the prison, government press conferences, interviews with released prisoners and distressed family members, statements from lawyers.
Directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares, the play is a sober, almost academic, treatment of a complex and troubling situation, in which facts are presented and information doled out with a solemnity that is only occasionally punctured by a burst of black humor: a man is arrested at an airport for having a battery charger in his bag; Donald Rumsfeld twists a phrase until it becomes incomprehensible; a prisoner writes a sarcastic letter describing the prison as if it were a seaside resort in Cuba. Most of what we are given, however, are hard facts and even harder emotional realities.
At the very start of the play, a piped-in voice announces with a touch of pride that everything you are about to hear was really said or written; not a word of the play is made-up. This factual revelation is meant to add to the horror you experience while watching the play—and, indeed, it is shocking to discover that these things are really happening—but this fact is also, paradoxically, at the heart of the play’s fundamental inability to horrify. Brittain and Slovo have accumulated an impressive body of material, and it is presented here in a theatrical format with all the gusto of the nightly news. Sorely underused actors spend much of the play sitting on chairs or standing behind podiums and delivering long speeches, many taken verbatim from interviews. The effect is distinctly un-dramatic—much what I imagine it would be like to watch documentary footage of these same interviews, except that it is made slightly less compelling by the fact that none of the real people are present.
As the audience members filter into their seats before the play begins, and then again during intermission, actors move about the prison-like set, enacting the tedious lives of caged men: doing push-ups and stretches, pacing back-and-forth, trying to fill the endless hours with activity to ward off the encroaching hopelessness and despair. Ironically, it turns out these little interludes comprise almost all the physical activity in the play. As soon as the house lights go down, the actors are stilled and stationed at their posts, facing the audience like deer caught in the stage lights.
Having recently seen Guinea Pig Solo at the Public, and having marveled at John Ortiz’s gymnastic theatricality, as he expressed all his characters’ pain and rage by throwing himself violently around the multi-level set, I couldn’t help but remark on all the wasted opportunities here. To think what Ortiz could have done with set designer Miriam Buether’s metal prison cages, clanging doors, and elevated beds! He probably could have given those chairs and podiums a run for their money, too.
The actors do their best to breathe life into this text, in spite of its lackluster presentation. Harsh Nayyar stands out as Mr. Begg, a man whose son was arrested and jailed in Guantanamo with no apparent cause, and who is still imprisoned there to this day. Mr. Begg’s anger and sorrow are palpable here, as he describes his plight to get justice for his son. Also Aasif Mandvi, Waleed Zuaiter, and Maulik Pancholy have touching turns as prisoners writing letters home and struggling to overcome their own mental and physical deterioration. Kathleen Chalfant, who plays a lawyer, is a poised and powerful presence, but there is only so much she can do with what she is given; even her speech toward the end, which has some of the most beautiful language in the play, somehow fails to stir.
The beauty of the theater, as one is reminded watching a play like Guinea Pig Solo or Homebody/Kabul, is its ability to construct a complete physical and emotional reality on stage, one whose existence is tenuous and yet can be overpowering for the audience. A good play has the ability to draw you out of yourself and into another person, another place and time, another emotional state. This is why theater is so appealing as a means of political expression: it is a powerful medium for changing people’s feelings, and, in turn, their minds. The theater artists behind Guantanamo seem to have forgotten this, and to be operating on the notion that the only difference between theater and, say, television is that theater is live. It is a particular shame where this kind of material is concerned: the art and craft of the theater could be used here to bring out all the pain, the terror, the desperation incurred by these events, and so make us think about Guantanamo in a way we never have before. Instead, we think about it in much the same way we did when we watched the news the night before: we are concerned and disturbed, but slightly bored by all the talking heads, and able to put it out of our minds as soon as we turn away. In the end, Guantanamo is an important play, but not a moving one, and in the theatre, that makes all the difference.
Pamela Newton is a writer based in Park Slope.
Pamela Newton is a writer based in Park Slope.