Honor Bound to Defend Freedom
Playing at the Culture Project
45 Bleecker St, 212-307-4100.
As an overly ambitious high school student, I tried to read Franz Kafka’s The Trial. It took months to make it through the wrinkled yellow paperback, which spent most of its days squished between textbooks and mixtapes in my backpack. The book made me claustrophobic; it didn’t seem to go anywhere.
Later I realized my discomfort was triggered by the very brilliance of Kafka’s tale. The protagonist, kept under house arrest with no knowledge of the charges against him, waits in dark hallways for unsatisfactory explanations from evasive bureaucrats. The story is unsettling; it gets under the skin.
We generally don’t like art and media to make us uncomfortable in the United States. We spurn darker and more thought-provoking films for mass-produced romantic comedies. We consume a steady diet of choreographed “reality TV” shows, while networks shy away from real images of war, which might provoke too much questioning.
But the overwhelming success of political documentaries this year demonstrates the hunger on the part of many people to open themselves to truths obscured by pop media, realities that may cause discomfort.
Victoria Britain and Gillian Slovo’s “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” uses theater to take this trend to a new level. “Guantanamo,” first performed at London’s Tricycle Theatre and currently playing at the Culture Project, is based on interviews with released detainees and the families of those still being held at the United States’ notorious prison camp in Cuba. It tells the stories of four British detainees, two of whom still languish in 8-by-8 cells with no charges levied against them. It is Kafka’s The Trial rewritten for the Bush era, and this time it is no fiction.
The stories of the four men, British citizens or legal residents swept up in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gambia, and labeled “enemy combatants,” give a face to the approximately 600 other detainees from over 40 countries who are currently held in Guantanamo. There, the U.S. claims the Geneva Conventions do not apply. Most detainees have been denied access to legal counsel for two and a half years; interrogations, according to released detainees, include stripping prisoners naked and beating them. “Recreation” periods, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in The Guardian,have been known to include being hooded, put in straitjackets and left in intense sunlight.
Before the drama begins in earnest, the audience walks directly into the prisoners’ predicament. Actors playing the detainees are already on stage, some dressed in blinding orange jumpsuits. They are in mesh cages or on narrow cots, doing pushups, reading the Quran, or blankly staring ahead.
We are introduced to several detainees. Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident whose father fled Iraq years ago after being detained by Saddam Hussein’s regime, is arrested in the Gambia, where he intended to set up a peanut-oil processing plant. Jamal al-Harith, a Black convert to Islam and native of Manchester, is en route to Pakistan to learn more about his chosen religion. Jamal is kid-napped in Iran by the Taliban and accused of being a British spy, then released and almost instantly recaptured by the U.S. military. Moazzam Begg flees the bombing of Afghanistan, where he has been installing water pumps as a humanitarian project for Pakistan, only to be kidnapped by U.S. and Pakistani forces and taken away in the trunk of a car. Ruhel Ahmed is also picked up in Pakistan on unknown charges.
These characters, as well as actors playing their family members and lawyers working on their behalf, speak directly to the audience throughout the duration of the play. Jamal tells of being placed in a freezing isolation cell of bare metal. Ruhel gradually loses his eyesight. Moazzam grad-ually loses his sanity. At one point we watch an American soldier handcuff Moazzam mid-prayer, chain his wrists to his ankles, and lead him, hunched over, to an off-stage interrogation room. An actor playing Donald Rumsfeld makes a brief cameo, instructing the audience that “These are among the most dangerous, best-trained killers on the face of the earth.” At intermission, the detainees do not leave the stage. And when the play ends, there is no curtain call. The actors remain in their cages, on their cots. The audience waits in some discomfort, slowly understands, and files out. We realize: they are not going anywhere. We are free to leave. They are not. The play is reality; it is happening right now; and it could happen, conceivably, to any of us.
The power of the Culture Project “Guantanamo” production lies in its unsettling straightfor-wardness. Lacking in dramatic tension, often going for long stretches with minimal movement on the stage as characters relate overlapping narratives, the play never feels slow. While some actors in the relatively young production still seem to be feeling out their characters, others, most notably Andrew Stewart-Jones as al-Harith and Ramsey Faragallah as al-Rawi’s brother Wahab, give strong, energetic performances that maintain the viewer’s undivided attention.
In March, two months before the play first opened in Britain, Jamal al-Harith and Ruhel Ahmed were released without charges and flown back to Britain. Moazzam Begg and Bisher al-Rawi remain incarcerated and may face U.S. military tribunals, which began in August and have been criticized by human rights groups as farces.
Towards the end of the play, the character of British civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce tells us, “I think perhaps we’re very callous – we see, we hear about atrocities – but we don’t have the capacity to register it, to react as human beings.”
“Guantanamo” takes one step toward bringing these atrocities to public attention in such a way that we cannot help but react as human beings. It may need to move on beyond 45 Bleecker to avoid merely preaching to the choir. But the play’s quiet narrative, and its ability to get under the skin, have the potential to shake diverse audiences out of their callousness.
Guantanamo is playing at the Culture Project. 45 Bleecker Street, 212-307-4100.