Fajer Al-Kaisi, Amir Arison, Leila Buck, Maha Chehlaoui, Demosthenes Chrysan, Daoud Heidami, Omar Koury, Laith Nakli, Rasha Zamamiri
The thrill of documentary film as a medium is the knowledge that the ideas conveyed are coming straight from the horse’s mouth. Documentary theatre, on the other hand, holds a fourth wall up in front of that immediacy, adding a layer of subjectivity between the subject and the audience – much as a film editor does with a documentary film. A layer of judgment, if you will.
In Aftermath, the new interview-based theatre piece from Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (The Exonerated), this sense of not-quite-realness is palpable in the stories told of Iraqi refugees affected by United States occupation. Chronicling the emotional, complex lives of nine suffering Iraqis, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the plights of those on-stage, but there is a tangible layer of what’s-real-and-what-isn’t lurking behind the surface, leaving us wondering – distractedly -just how much of the playwrights’ hands we’re witnessing and how much is directly quoted.
The piece, which is mostly sympathetic toward the Iraqi refugees, wastes no time attempting to gain the sympathy of its American audience. Instead, it assumes we’ll go along for the ride, trusting that the play’s subjects are in the right and leaving us alienated in the process, vacillating between American allegiances and bleeding-heart liberal guilt.
After all, Aftermath focuses entirely on the stories of its subjects, which are told directly to any audience, as if we’re sitting in on a translated conversation. Sometimes the characters speak in Arabic, but throughout there’s the consistent illusion that we’re listening in on something we’re not quite privy to but have somehow stumbled upon. However, as we’re asked to dive headfirst into the situations of the characters on hand, we’re left with a rant rather than a dialogue about most of the topics on hand. Mostly, Blank and Jensen paint a one-sided pro-Iraqi, anti-American portrait of their chosen topic that, while possibly appeasing those among us eager to wash our hands of responsibility for the Iraq War, doesn’t give us all that much to chew on intellectually.
The play’s production at New York Theatre Workshop, directed by co-author Jessica Blank, is simple and direct, the stories of the characters overlapping throughout the piece but never quite interlocking in any conclusive way.
A savvy nine-person cast wrings the playwrights’ dialogue for as much truth as is possible in a work that’s essentially molded to suit a particular agenda. Demosthenes Chrysan is particularly affecting as a sullied imam, angered by the lack of understanding for his Muslim faith, his knitted brow brimming with rage.
No matter how well-written these documentary snippets are, however, chosen as they were from interviews conducted by the authors, there’s still an inescapable sense of falsity to be found in this production.
The play ends with the cast proclaiming, “I am an Iraqi,” but if this is the play’s thesis statement there’s a sense that several connective arguments are missing. What this claim to citizenship means may be clear to the characters on-stage, but we’ve never really been let into their world, because, in attempting to win us over, the authors have forgotten that it’s argument – not oratory -that ultimately reaches hearts and minds.