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Proud To Be an American?

Guantánamo prompts its audiences to take a good, hard look at where our country stands in today's world.

By New York City
Harsh Nayyar, Maulik Pancholy, and Ramsey Faragallahin Guantánamo(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Harsh Nayyar, Maulik Pancholy, and Ramsey Faragallah
in Guantánamo
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
On September 11, 2001 Americans could rightfully feel unassailably innocent and righteously angry. Since then, in our efforts to assert our anger, our innocence has turned from snow white to ash gray -- and it's getting more soiled as the weeks and months go by. More than 1,000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, along with countless civilians, and all of that slaughter has its genesis in erroneous intelligence reports. Even worse, in an understandable effort to protect ourselves against unspeakable evil, we have strayed from the moral high ground; the United States government is responsible for an ever-increasing number of shameless acts of cruelty. The pride with which we have called ourselves Americans now sticks in the throat.

What does this have to do with theater? A lot. It's not enough to review a play like Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which is playing at 45 Bleecker, and respond only to its craft. The fact is, Guantánamo is not a great work of art: some of the monologues go on too long, and the piece doesn't always have a clear through-line. Nonetheless, it does what provocative theater is intended to do: It makes you think about a subject that you would probably much rather avoid.

Guantánamo is not an even-handed exploration of the way that the United States is handling the 550 detainees held at our naval base in Cuba, but rare is the documentary work that truly has no bias. (If you had any illusions on that score, Michael Moore should have dispelled them.) In this play, the men we see are all apparently innocent. One might reasonably assume that some of the 550 prisoners are, indeed, fanatical and dangerous, but Guantánamo doesn't address that. The most disturbing issue here is the lack of due process for any of these prisoners; they languish in captivity, uncharged with any crime. Because they are not soldiers per se, they aren't considered prisoners of war. Most of them have been jailed for years without ever having been charged with or convicted of any crime. The point is made forcefully that if the rights of these people can be made forfeit, the rights of Americans may be next.

Adapted from "spoken evidence" by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, the material is powerfully delivered by a large, impeccable cast that includes such highly respected actors as Kathleen Chalfant and Aasif Mandvi. Directors Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares use the theatrical conceit of having prisoners on stage before the play begins and, most impressively, after it ends -- as if to say, "We can go home but they cannot." The emotional impact of this is visceral. (Note: Archbishop Desmond Tutu will make a special appearance in the Saturday evening, October 2 performance of Guantánamo; for more information, click here.)

What with the war continuing and the presidential election approaching, the impetus for political theater has been strong. It's gratifying that audiences seem to be supporting these plays, mixing their love of art with a desire to be engaged in the important issues of the day. In the case of Guantánamo, the issues are more compelling than the play itself. Still, this production is the equivalent of a warning flare brightening a dark sky, and is therefore not to be missed.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]


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