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Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's compelling documentary theater piece is based upon interviews with Iraqi citizens who lived through the American invasion of their country.

Fajer Al-Kaisi, Demosthenes Chrysan
in Aftermath
(© Joan Marcus)
The impact that the American invasion of Iraq had on a handful of everyday Iraqi citizens is brought vividly to life in Aftermath, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's new documentary theater piece, now receiving its world premiere at New York Theater Workshop. Based upon interviews that Blank and Jensen conducted with refugees in Jordan, the piece occasionally struggles with the limitations inherent in the duo's project, but ultimately presents a compelling and at times disconcerting look at their subjects' experiences.

The play focuses on six stories, with names changed to protect the interview subjects -- several of whom continue to live in fear of potential reprisals of being seen as collaborating with Americans. We hear from a pharmacist named Rafiq (Laith Nakli), whose nephew was killed by an unknown group of Americans for reasons he still doesn't understand; Yassar (Amir Arison), a dermatologist working at Baghdad Hospital who suddenly had to treat major wounds as best he could; Basima (Leila Buck), a Christian woman who survived a bombing that killed many of her family; and Abdul-Aliyy (Demosthenes Chrysan), a Muslim religious leader who was detained at Abu Ghraib. In addition, the play features two couples: a pair of cooks (Omar Koury and Rasha Zamamiri) who fled Iraq rather than inform on their neighbors, and a theater director (Daoud Heidami) and his artist wife (Maha Chehlaoui).

Tying the show together is a translator named Shahid (Fajer Al-Kaisi), a composite character that the playwrights created based on several individuals with whom they worked. Although the majority of the performance is in English, certain words and at times even entire speeches are spoken in Arabic. Shahid often directly addresses the audience, giving context, sharing additional stories, and even telling darkly humorous jokes.

One of the strongest elements of Aftermath is the way that it treats the problem of translation. Several of the characters comment upon the questionable accuracy that they've witnessed from some translators, and at one point, Yassar -- who speaks some English -- angrily rebukes Shahid for mistranslating one of his comments. Such moments underscore the way the stories we hear are not just filtered through Blank and Jensen's playwriting sensibilities, but also how the authors are themselves reliant on someone else to interpret the words of the interview subjects.

Another powerful moment in the show occurs when Shahid asks a question of Abdul-Aliyy on behalf of the unseen Blank and Jensen, to which the imam angrily replies, "Do they want to listen to the remainder of the story, or do they just want me to answer this question?" The vehemence displayed by Chrysan in this moment is shocking, and Abdul-Aliyy's bitterness and even hatred towards America as a result of his experiences is likely to make some audience members uncomfortable.

The entire ensemble, directed by Blank, deliver strong performances, with standouts including Chrysan, who demonstrates a powerful emotional connection to the material; Koury and Zamamiri, who create a believable and loving onstage marital relationship; and Arison, who initially displays Yassar's arrogant demeanor as comic relief, but is then able to bring surprising depth to the role.

Although the playwrights include representatives of several professions and religious backgrounds, they don't present a true cross-section of the Iraqi populace, tending to skew towards a middle-to-upper class demographic. This is presumably due to the fact that they were unable (due to safety concerns) to conduct interviews in Iraq itself, and so the refugees whom they encountered in Jordan tended to be people who could actually economically afford to leave Iraq, even if several talk about how they had to leave most of their money and possessions behind. A wider range of perspectives presented and/or a more diverse geographic sampling (including, for example, Iraqis in the U.S., Europe, etc.) may have benefited the piece.