- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

They are there when you enter the theater. The British prisoners at Guantanamo naval base slump on their cots, staring at nothing but the ceiling or the chain-link fence that confines them. During intermission, they’re in their cells and remain there — in lieu of a curtain call — long after the play ends, the cycle of confinement endlessly repeating.

This simple image says more about the mundane cruelties of imprisonment than two hours of dialogue in Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s earnest play “Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.’” It is deftly directed by Serge Seiden and based on spoken evidence, personal letters and interviews concerning four British detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The play interweaves their stories with those of their anguished families and also features pop-ups from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, various human rights attorneys, British politicians, and U.S. military personnel.

The British prisoners are at Guantanamo for years at a time because of bizarre or trumped-up circumstances — and mainly because all four men embrace the Islamic faith. Bisher (Ramiz Monsef) is from a wealthy English family and is an athlete and extreme sports lover arrested in Gambia while trying to set up a peanut processing plant with his brother Wahab (Omar Koury). Ruhel (Nafees Hamid) is a self-assured player who just wants to get back to hanging out with his friends. Moazzam (Kaveh Haerian), a do-gooder type, was building wells and water systems in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time of his arrest, and his elderly father, Azmat (Harsh Nayyar) spends years trying to find his son’s whereabouts. Jocular, witheringly funny Jamal (Andrew Stewart-Jones) was also in Pakistan, on a religious pilgrimage of sorts, when he was taken into custody.

The actors put a human face on the events at Guatanamo, with Mr. Haerian giving a harrowing study of a gentle man going from patient endurance to madness during his confinement. Mr. Stewart-Jones enlivens the dour visage of the play with his genial performance as the street-wise bloke Jamal, and Mr. Nayyar is eloquent as Moazzam’s determined and quietly outraged father. Leo Erickson is also effective in a number of roles, including a touchy, double-speaking Rumsfeld.

“Guantanamo” continues the trend of “documentary theater” set forth by Moises Kaufman in “The Laramie Project,” the story of the homophobia-motivated murder of Matthew Shepard, and Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated,” a tale about death-row inmates. These plays are unsubtly political, spoon-feeding the audience prescribed responses — that practically every death-row inmate is innocent and is there because of a bureaucratic mistake, for example, or, as in the case of “Guantanamo,” that America has become so demented with power and its addled war on terrorism that basic human freedoms have gone out the window.

It is the placard school of drama: “Killing people is bad,” “America stinks” — all of which might look good on a protest sign, but is it really theater? Though documentary plays can be powerful and compelling (the stories and performances in “Guantanamo” shake you to the core) you wonder what, exactly, is their purpose. Is it to make liberal audiences feel better about themselves, giving them the impression that their mere attendance at an issue play means they are taking a stand or that they care? Or are audience members supposed to rush out and bring about social and political change? If only theater still had that power.

One-sided plays tend to wear you down, as the same message is pounded home again and again until you feel as if you’re in the lecture hall instead of the theater. You’re not moved to action or debate, just ground down and made to feel hopeless. Even an issue as worthy as the senseless practices at Guantanamo becomes less gripping when presented as unmitigated agitprop.

**

WHAT: “Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’,” by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 11.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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