Voices From Guantanamo
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
January 30, 2009
At St. Veronica's Church, the current theatrical home for the Actors & Poets Group's production of Voices from Guantanamo, I was present for a vital and significant work of theatre. As an audience member, I was asked to bear witness to the words of prisoners held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. This work is a clear reminder of why we go to the theatre and why we create art, a testament to the ways in which art is a vital human activity and perhaps even a powerful tool for change.
The piece is a performative recitation of poems written by those being detained at Guantanamo, adapted for the stage by Duane Mazey and Carlo D'Amore. D'Amore has also directed the piece brilliantly. There are five young men who portray the prisoners through a dramatic presentation of the poems written during imprisonment. In addition, a female lawyer narrates key events of the history of the use of Guantanamo throughout the War on Terror, and shares important specific details about the particular individuals who penned the words we are hearing. The actors not only take on the personas of the various prisoners, they also embody the poems themselves, allowing the words to come to life by giving them voice. This, in turn, forces those present to listen and attempt to understand—or, if not to comprehend fully the poetic text, then at least to empathize with these prisoners as real, complex human beings, and to recognize and contemplate the reality of the prison setting. The performers—Adeel Ahmed, Seif Badrawy, Dave Hall, Sunny Joseph, 'Aina Rapoza, and Bernadette Drayton—are all passionate and compelling in their performances.
The set is simple: five black mats positioned on the floor, each with a silver bucket in one corner; an office desk strewn with common desk objects at a corner of the stage; and many sheets of yellow notebook paper littering the floor, making the poems themselves seem ever present, an integral part of the prison space. The theatre elements employed in the production are kept to a minimum, but those that are used constitute gripping choices. The ambient sounds of the area surrounding the detention center, such as helicopters overhead, are present in the space from the moment the audience enters. In addition, the opening stage picture is unforgettably meaningful. After a startling sudden blackout, the five men emerge on stage, dressed all in white, with white fabric covering their faces. They stand close together and represent not actual people, but instead a kind of screen on which projections of various events of the war and of Guantanamo are shown. In this way, the human body is strikingly dehumanized on stage; it is theatrical spectacle that mimics, symbolically, the reality of what is happening to the prisoners. They are no longer allowed to function as full human beings; they are a blank slate on which world events are projected. The prisoners are not seen as unique individuals; they are denied basic human rights and stripped of their freedoms without even a clear justification as to why.
The play is also preoccupied with the relationship between poetry and national and international crises. The work highlights that these poems were initially silenced because they were seen as a potential risk to national security. The actuality is that art can be, and perhaps should be, potentially dangerous to certain political positions. Poetry, the act of creation, is also, as the work points out, often "born of suffering." The larger point is that even in the face of something horrific and incomprehensible, something beautiful can be created. Art is still created in light of the worst of conditions, in the face of the most terrible human rights abuses.
The lawyer reminds the audience, "Perhaps their poems will prick the conscience of a nation." She, along with the creators of this theatrical work, is aware of the potential efficacy built into a work of art. Theatre can, literally, stage an event that has taken place or is taking place, making its audience confront and experience it directly. In doing so, it can open the spectators' eyes to realities previously dismissed or ignored and perspectives previously misunderstood or left unspoken. Voices from Guantanamo takes on an important aspect of the current political situation and presents it for the audience, hopefully opening a dialogue with and for the viewers about the realities of the world in which they live. In this way, the play is incredibly powerful. Perhaps a work of theatre, on its own, can do nothing to end a specific crisis; what it can do, however, is force the spectators to remain aware of that crisis and, in so doing, potentially inspire them, the public, us, to do something about what is wrong.