To the playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the theatre is a forum for testimony. They based their 2002 production The Exonerated on interviews with former American prisoners released from death row - along with their letters, transcripts, and case files - creating drama from the documentary monologues of characters who had survived an almost unimaginable experience. A major off-Broadway success that featured a rotating cast of celebrities, the play ran for over 600 performances and was eventually presented at the United Nations. Blank and Jensen, who are married, want to bring their audiences face to face with people "just like us" who, for reasons beyond their control, have been forced to endure the types of horrors many of us would rather not know about.
This same impulse drives the couple's new play, Aftermath, opening this week at New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan's East Village. Last summer, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, the American playwrights travelled to Jordan and interviewed over 40 Iraqi refugees about their experiences following the 2003 US military invasion. The resulting drama incorporates large chunks of these interviews, bringing the audience into the living rooms of displaced Iraqi civilians. As a heartfelt reckoning with the human faces of collateral damage - more a humanitarian gesture than entertainment- Aftermath is very clearly pitched at Americans, offering yet another partial answer to a limitless question: what have we wrought?
Though the dialogue in Aftermath is generally spoken in English (mostly by actors of Middle Eastern descent), our guide is a translator (Fajer al Kaisi) who smooths the rough edges of the principals' personal confessions, providing context, background and further testimony. "People from different countries sometimes are nervous to talk to each other, but I think, if you're just a regular person, if you're not working for anyone with power, if you tell the truth, then people will trust you," he says, with some conviction.
The play's refugees are all seemingly interviewed on the same day, each Iraqi keeping one eye focused on the television screen where Iraq battles Australia in the World Cup qualifiers. Their circumstances vary: one man is a smooth-talking Baghdad dermatologist, another a Sunni imam who had been sent to Abu Ghraib, and another couple worked together in the Iraqi theatre, like a Middle Eastern counterpart to this drama's married American playwrights. But the most tragic undercurrent to Aftermath is our awareness that we're watching the fortunate ones, the men and women actually able to escape Iraq and at least attempt to build a new life from scratch.
As the play begins, the audience is addressed as a privileged guest, plied with coffee and pittas, and regaled with stories of quotidian Iraqi life. We learn that Fallujah is - or was? - a town of "really, really nice people" that includes every profession but hotel owner. There are no hotels, you see, because every house welcomes visitors with five-star hospitality. We are given details about the building of a family house in Baghdad, where a housewarming party is capped with the roasting of a whole stuffed sheep. And we discover the flavour of Iraq's literary culture, where students stay up all night discussing King Lear. But soon we are also told of the vicissitudes of life under Saddam, when "everyone was watching everyone. And everyone knew he was being watched".
By establishing the daily rhythms of Iraqi life, Aftermath is in a position to damningly pinpoint the destabilising societal effects of the US invasion. (To say nothing of the more obvious physical effects of, for example, the Shock and Awe bombing campaign.) One character explains: "If I came to your house, by force, all of a sudden, and told your kids, 'Now you can do whatever you want. Your father can't stop you any more,' of course there's gonna be chaos." Another character recalls laughing off the naivete of an American doctor who asks an Iraqi psychiatrist if he treats patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. He laughs because traumatic stress is just a fact of daily life in war-torn Iraq. If someone sees a psychiatrist, it's because he needs help to quit smoking.
As an act of moral witness, Aftermath is beyond reproach. But Blank and Jensen's script sometimes jumps too quickly from one monologue to another, diluting the blunt emotional impact while highlighting mournful similarities in characters' narrative trajectories. This production wears its humanitarian aims on its sleeve; at the end of the performance, audience members were encouraged to donate to a fund for Iraqi refugees using a box in the lobby.