Aasif H. Mandvi in Guantánamo(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Aasif H. Mandvi in Guantánamo
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Political theater, much needed in these parlous times, is having a resurgence. The bracing phenomenon owes a good deal of its impetus to London's Tricycle Theatre and its artistic director, Nicolas Kent. Besides importing politically engaged productions from elsewhere on the beset globe, Kent has, for the last decade, been presenting homegrown "tribunal plays" composed strictly of verbatim testimony and first-person reports.

Following hot-off-the-presses looks at, among other events, South Africa's Stephen Lawrence hearings and last year's investigations into David Kelly's suicide after the Iraqi war leaks, Kent has thrown Guantánamo into the faces of the theatergoing public. He and co-director Sacha Wares have engineered a highly combustible piece, subtitled "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," from a script put together by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo. To make their outraged points about rampant injustices in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, the two compilers have pulled speeches from Johan, Lord Steyn; United Kingdom foreign secretary Jack Straw; and U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. These speeches are surrounded with material from letters sent by Guantánamo internees to families, and the family members are also quoted herein.

It's a stretch of the imagination to call the resulting work a play; Guantánamo is more a stage documentary crossed with the kind of grandiose choral speech popular in high schools a half-century ago. But though the piece may not adhere to traditional playwriting niceties, it has the power to raise audience temperatures to fevered levels. The work is polemical, marked by the creators' determination to convince theatergoers that something awful is occurring and will continue to occur unless outside voices are lifted in protest.

Those addressing the audience directly are four of the nearly 600 Guantánamo detainees: Moazzam Begg (Aasif Mandvi), Bisher al-Rawi (Waleed Zuaiter), Ruhel Ahmed (Maulik Pancholy), and Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones). All recite letters that they've sent home, in which they detail their experiences and reiterate their innocence of crimes for which they might be accused; the fact that they've been held in 6'x8' cells for close to three years without actually being accused of specific felonies is a tremendously significant issue. The case for the detainees not being what Rumsfeld terms "unlawful combatants" is further pressed by Moazzam Begg's father (Harsh Nayyar); Bisher al-Rawi's brother, Wahab (Ramsey Faragallah); and a number of advocates including Gareth Peirce (Kathleen Chalfant) and army lawyer Major Dan Mori (Waleed Zuaiter). (Incidentally, "detainees" is a word intentionally designated by the government to be used instead of "prisoners of war"; to bring down suicide-attempt statistics, the term "manipulative self-injurious behavior" is substituted.)

The Guantánamo argument -- disdained, if not dismissed, by Rumsfeld in sound bites depicting him as flatly autocratic -- is that the letters recited and family members listened to provide sufficient proof that George W. Bush is wrong to categorize all detainees summarily as "killers"; Al-Rawi, for instance, had gone to Gambia with his brother to start a peanut-processing business. By extrapolation, the compilers postulate that a large percentage of the inmates, whose physical and mental health is deteriorating, are incarcerated for no good reason and with no legal justification. In his excerpted F.A. Mann lecture, Lord Steyn says, "The purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of the victors."

Kathleen Chalfant and Waleed Zuaiter in Guantánamo(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Kathleen Chalfant and Waleed Zuaiter
in Guantánamo
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
By the time Brittain and Slovo finish amassing evidence, they've established viewpoints that are difficult to refute. Theirs is definitely an English outlook, though, since the detainees scrutinized are English citizens or residents. It might be said that what Kent has in mind is to add his determined stand to the rest of his country's attitude towards Tony Blair's alliance with America in the troubled Iraq war. It also could be held that the statements of innocence made in the play are to be expected -- that, if there were other sides, impressions might alter. But there's little to be said in defense of the flouting of basic civil rights and the specifics of the Geneva Convention.

Miriam Buether's set for Guantánamo features cells stage left and right, in which the men are housed. At the center are metal cots on which the detainees often lie and tables at which the other participants sit. Because the Culture Project stage is wider than the London stages on which the piece was played (I saw the production when it had moved from the Tricycle's Kilburn venue to New Ambassadors), a sense of claustrophobia is missing -- as are, of course, the rodents and insects to which one of the men refers. Buether has also supplied the orange uniforms that the prisoners wear, and sound designer Bill Grady broadcasts the word "censored" when letters have been black-lined. The cast members are convincing stand-ins for their real-life counterparts, with Aasif Mandvi giving a notably disturbing account of Moazzam Begg's increasing loss of hope.

In the time since Guantánamo first opened in London, the United States Supreme Court declared that detainees can challenge their situation; a speech covering that decision has been added to the text. This very week, the first actual tribunal began -- and the independent panel looking into military detention operations laid blame for questionable Guantánamo interrogation tactics on, among others, Rumsfeld. In such a fast-changing and dangerous political climate, Guantánamo comes not a moment too soon. The worry is that it may be too late.