Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Photo/Sarah Krulwich

How does one adequately convey what's happening half a world away? The news itself, which swims in a sea of ink or allows us to selectively tune out in million-pixel flashes, doesn't always connect with us. First-person reportage, complete with interviews and strongly worded prose, is sometimes too dense. And even a journalist's experience, when brought vividly to the stage (as in New Yorker-writer George Packer's political play last year, Betrayed), is still just a journalist's experience.

What then, of the documentary play? Still second-hand, sure, but somehow more present, stuff that--like The Laramie Project, or Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's last show, The Exonerated--brings the so-called mountain directly to the audience. Yes, the cast of Blank and Jensen's latest work, Aftermath--now unflinchingly running at New York Theater Workshop--are still actors. But in perfectly speaking the exact words of Iraqi refugees in Jordan (well, 90% of their words), they are something more, too: they are mediums. At their best moments--and there are many--they are mirrors, too, showing us what great "heroes" we are.

Except that, while the show has obviously been edited--Aftermath pieces together moments from six different interviews--it's not blatantly agenda-driven, or accusation-based. In other words, it's a lot harder to dismiss or, Palin-like, to issue a blanket non-apology for. Instead, Blank and Jensen focus on the nature of Iraqi pride (some of them happen to be watching Iraq play in the World Cup qualifiers against Australia) and the deep, dark sorrows they have in watching their country fall from the predictable actions of Saddam to the more frightening chaos that comes of putting police uniforms on citizens who don't particularly like a given sect.

At times, Blank's direction is a little too much--Aftermath could do without the light, vibratory ambient noise in the background and the subtle shifts in color (red blood, blue sadness) against the brick back wall. (It's worth noting, though, that David Lander's lighting design, soft splashes of light that either focus on a single story or bring everyone's communal experience together, is terrific everywhere else.) The show is so quietly powerful that even subtle touches are obvious, and the last thing Blank wants to be is as visually heavy handed as Leigh Silverman. The stories are strong enough, and the actors are more convincing when we forget--for a moment--the conventions of theaters.

However, when it comes to evoking those words, Blank's a genius--and the fact that she collaborated on the script clearly helps her find a foothold (as it did with her work on April Yvette Thompson's Liberty City). The show opens in a rush of Arabic, as Rafiq (Laith Nakli) turns from the back row of dimly lit benches where the other performers sit, coming downstage (alongside a row of differently styled chairs) to address us directly. After an uncertain moment--are the supertitles broken?--a translator named Shaid (Fajer Al-Kaisi) walks on, apologizing for the delay. He explains that this man--a pharmacist--simply wants to offer us coffee or tea, and as he speaks English to Rafiq's Arabic, Rafiq slowly transitions into speaking English, a bit of theatrical magic that holds up. (This is especially true in one of the most savagely affecting parts of the play, in which Rafiq, gradually speeding up as he asks more and more mournful questions about the aimless violence he's seen, lapses back into Arabic, his voice now ragged and torn across two languages.)

Every character surprises us, even the arrogant dermatologist, Yassir (Amir Arison, much stronger here than in Why Torture is Wrong...), an educated Iraqi on account of his profession, who insists on speaking English himself and making movie comparisons that, when pressed for elaboration, wind up exposing a lot of what he tries to keep hidden. (For instance, he idolizes Richard Gere, for his ability to be "steely.") Surprising, too, are all the absolutely mundane moments Blank and Jensen have left in. Yes, there's an imam who was falsely imprisoned in Abu Ghraib (Demosthenes Chrysan), and yes, he grimly--rightly!--explains that there are some things that "cannot be solved with an apology." But there's also a sweet married couple, Naimah and Fouad (Rasha Zamamiri and Omar Koury), the sort who "negotiate" over facts, like when Fouad started working construction.

There's a widow (Leila Buck) who, at long last, pulls down the shawl around her face to show the remnants of shrapnel, which accounts for what happened to her husband and baby. But there's also Asad and Fadilah (Daoud Heidami and Maha Chehlaoui), an actor/playwright and his artistic, set-designing wife, and it's just as affecting to hear Asad quietly mention that his wife stopped painting during the bombing as it is to hear Fouad talking of his home being invaded. One realizes that a violation is a violation, whether it's physical or not.

Aftermath is a play filled with good theatrical choices, which is sort of ironic, as it depicts the slew of poor upon poorer choices that have been made in Iraq. It's the gold standard of political theater, and a shining exemplar of the documentary sub-genre, and it's absolutely must-see. No more "afters"; go now.

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