Signature Theatre analyzes imprisonment.
A three-line newspaper article inspired Annalisa Dias to write the first draft of her play 4,380 Nights, currently receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre as part of the 2018 Women's Voices Theater Festival. The article dealt with two Algerian prisoners who had been released from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which led Dias to think about the fact that the prison — on most days — is far from the headlines.
4,380 Nights moves back and forth in time. It primarily takes place during the presidency of George W. Bush, when an Algerian-born United States detainee named Malik Essaid was imprisoned at Guantánamo. It also travels back to the distant past, encompassing the long period during the 19th century when Algeria was conquered and controlled by France. A man named El Hadj El Kaim (played by the same actor who plays Essaid) represents a leader of the Algerians who advises Colonel Pelissier, an officer in the French army, how to fight in the desert.
The first American to have any interaction with Essaid is Bud Abramson, a lawyer who has been sent to find out information about Essaid that may be useful in the case of his eventual trial. Essaid, who has already been in jail for three years, is immediately suspicious, thinking Abramson has come to determine if he is a terrorist or not. In fact, it's just the opposite; Abramson is very sympathetic to the prisoner's plight. Over time, Abramson slowly wins Essaid's confidence.
Essaid also interacts with a brute of an Army soldier named Luke Harrison, who kicks Essaid and tortures him mentally. These scenes are matched with scenes of Colonel Pelissier, the French officer who turns on El Hadj El Kaim in a brutal attack. The viciousness of these torture scenes with Harrison and Pelissier are offset by scenes with a character identified only as the Woman, who reads passages from the Koran in a mellifluous voice before the play starts. Throughout the show, she tells poetic tales from the history of Carthage (now Tunisia) and Numidia (now Algiers).
Ahmad Kamal is excellent in the roles of Essaid and El Kaim. As the politically savvy prisoner who knows a lot about the American government, he talks intelligently about his chances for release. As the Arab leader, he tries in good faith to represent his people well, but is undermined by the double-dealing French colonel. As Abramson, Michael John Casey offers an emotional contrast to the angry Essaid. He plays the attorney as slightly shy, embarrassed by America's attitude toward political prisoners, and determined to help Essaid. Casey's Abramson is credibly won over by Essaid's exuberant personality. As he gradually reveals details of his own life, Essaid's defenses break down. Rex Daugherty is appropriately and believably vicious as Harrison and Pelissier. Lynette Rathnam is a welcome presence in the testosterone-charged atmosphere. Her Woman is calm and serves as a modern Scheherazade, telling extraordinary stories to calm the savage men around her.
Kathleen Akerley directs the play as though it is a complicated tone poem. Elizabeth Jenkins creates an evocative set, complete with large square lanterns and pillows embroidered in bright colors and Near East designs. Costume designer Heather Lockard creates two particularly effective outfits in this show: the Napoleonic-era military dress for Colonel Pelissier and a beautifully cut mauve silk dress for the Woman.
4,380 Nights explores the very large issues of racism, violence, and the importance that the past plays in these issues. One of the central points of the plot is that America, with its adoration of the present and future, has nearly always forgotten to take account of the weight of history. Dias's play, with its sensitivity to peoples, borders, countries, and tribes, suggests that history should have a more important role in all of America's decisions, especially those affecting places like Guantánamo.