Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 8,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Guantanamo’

The argument continues over the US’s probably illegal lease agreement

to use Cuba’s Guantanamo base. There is no argument, however, that the

base is being used as a concentration camp for the sake of freedom.

Although it has recently been announced that a series of pre-trial

hearings have been set, more than 600 people from various nations

suspected of being Taliban soldiers from Afghanistan and al-Qaida are

being held captive without legal representation or the right to

communicate with their families. While a U.S. appeals court ruled in

December, 2003 that these prisoners cannot be held indefinitely, and

cannot be denied lawyers, the situation continues.

There is increasing rage and frustration among the citizens of the

world as stories come out of the physical abuse meted out to

prisoners, and of possible executions by a simple decree from a secret

military court. This condition has prompted more and more citizens,

notably writers, to speak out about what they see as human rights

violations. Journalist Victoria Brittain and novelist Gillian Slovo

have assembled a probing and profound docudrama, "Guantanamo: Honor

Bound to Defend Freedom," that has everything to do with our inability

to confront and take a stand against unacceptable and intolerable acts

of inhumanity, and nothing to do with our right to defend freedom. The

tag on the title comes from the sign outside camp X-Ray at Guantanamo.

Commissioned and produced by the Tricycle Theater in North London in

January, 2004, and subsequently moved to the New Ambassadors Theater

on the West End (where it is still playing), "Guantanamo" is produced

in New York by Allan Buchman and the Culture Project ("The

Exonerated") and staged by its original directors, Nicolas Kent and

Sacha Wares.

While one can only wonder about the hundreds of stories yet untold,

this is an awesome achievement for the authors. They have compiled a

tightly knit, convincing, and compelling range of testimony. Something

to think about is what shape their play would have taken had it

included a single justifying and supportable response from even one

member of the government, despite the fact that numerous requests were

made, and were denied or refused. One therefore cannot complain for

its lack of fairness to the other side.

The focus of the docudrama is on the crisscrossing monologues, often

laced with bracing wit, of the five British detainees released in late

February, plus the letters of those still held captive, the testimony

of family members, lawyers, and public officials. One gets the feeling

of the detention center immediately upon entering the theater. The

wide stage area, flanked by two mesh metal cages with cots, is filled

with rows of small tables and chairs. The pre-dawn call to prayer is

sung from the stage by the prisoners within the effectively bleak and

ominous setting designed by Miriam Buether and highlighted by Johanna

Town’s roving lighting. Buether also designed the costumes, notably

the one-piece orange uniforms worn by the detainees.

While the detainees are referred to by Secretary of Defense Donald

Rumsfeld as "legal combatants," and not prisoners of war, they have,

in the words of Lord Justice Steyn, fallen into "the legal black

hole." As both roles are played by Robert Langdon Lloyd, it is worth

noting that Lloyd captures both Rumsfeld, as a stiff-necked smug

double-talker and Steyn, as expected, as a level-headed and

impassioned interpreter of the impossible situation. The speech that

Steyn made on November 23, 2003 at Lincoln’s Inn in London concludes,

"The president has made public in advance his personal view of the

prisoners as a group: he has described them all as killers."

Listening to the occasional, yet consistently confounding, statements

made by Rumsfeld will undoubtedly do more than ruffle your feathers.

However it remains for Begg (Harsh Nayyar) to most poignantly

chronicle the experiences of his increasingly mentally unstable son,

Moazzam Begg (Aasif Mandvi). Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones)

will not only leave you stunned by his incredible tale, from first

accused to being a British spy and then a Taliban/Al Qaeda

collaborator, but also by his riveting account of how inhumanly

prisoners were manacled and humiliated. A young British business man,

Bisher al-Rawi (Waled Zuaiter), relates the horrifying sequence of his

imprisonments from Gambia to Bagram and finally to Guantanamo, and

those of his brother, Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah), an

entrepreneur who is arrested for bringing a battery charger into

Gambia.

Kathleen Chalfont brings subtly ironic shadings to her otherwise stern

role as Gareth Peirce, Wahab al-Rawi’s lawyer, who is able to convince

British intelligence that the suspicious equipment is only a battery

charger available at a local store. This, as the investigators are

busy flying in a forensic expert from Bali to inspect it. Joris Stuyck

is matter-of-factly detached as U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw,

able to accept the idea of British civilians charged by an American

military tribunal.

Particular haunting is the performance of Jeffrey Brick, who, as Tom

Clarke, a young man who recalls how his sister, trapped in the first

tower, was "incinerated publicly," serves as a voice for everyone’s

immediate response to 9/11. All the other performances give breadth to

this "theater of testimony" and depth to these wrenching accounts.

Although the play is structured solely from the facts regarding the

British detainees, it is the fate of the other 650 that we are left

pondering.

Resonating without sensationalism, the power of "Guantanamo" is that

it is relevant and important in a time of crisis. And like other

excellent examples of "theater of testimony" – Anna Deveare Smith’s

"Twilight Los Angeles 1992," Emily Mann’s "Execution of Justice," and

Moises Kaufman’s "The Laramie Project" – it lets the facts speak for

themselves.

"Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom", 45 Bleecker

Street Theater (at Lafayette). Tickets: $55 to $60. Call 212-307-4100

or 212-253-9983.


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