A Room of One's Own
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 28, 2006
Virginia Woolf argued that in order to manifest her full potential, every woman needed a room of her own. Coco Fusco's character in her performance piece A Room of One's Own: Women and Power in the New America is a military interrogator who is meant to demonstrate the terrible irony of modern American women finding this room inside the military—that their "own rooms" can be literally portrayed as tiny interrogation chambers in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay. The biggest problem with the piece is simultaneously a very sad comment on the world in which we live: the play neither shocks nor surprises. Its satirical or critical force seems focused on the irony that coercive military interrogation is seen as a step toward gender equality, rather than on the interrogation process itself. That irony is real, to be sure, but the piece doesn't really situate the gender issue within the broader political context of the ongoing controversies about US treatment of its prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. Its depiction of interrogation and prisoner treatment seems almost benign compared to what we've all seen over and over in the media in the past few years—and I never felt that the piece was commenting on the gap between the two.
There are three elements to the performance. In the first, Fusco tapes herself reciting a clumsy poem lauding Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which she intends to send to Rice as gift and token of her esteem. In the second, Fusco gives a briefing to the audience on interrogation techniques, complete with an official-looking PowerPoint presentation. Intercut with this is the third element—video simulating a simultaneous live feed from an interrogation room where Fusco and another female soldier prepare a male prisoner for interrogation.
The ode to Rice is sometimes funny in its transparent flattery, but is quite clearly satirical, and I'm not sure that it serves to establish the aura of seriousness, professionalism, and simulated reality that the rest of the play trades in.
The "briefing" itself, PowerPoint presentation and all, is a perfect simulacrum of the real thing—Fusco as the slightly awkward speaker more comfortable with reading off of her prepared slides than speaking directly to the audience; slides bearing bullet points and buzzwords; a few carefully constructed photo montages of which the presenter is clearly very proud; weird clip-art drawings of generic looking people; self-conscious repetition of the key "on-message" words and phrases. But the content is a little repetitive and, again, the techniques shown in the presentation are already familiar to the audience. And the structure, in which Fusco is continually walking offstage in the middle of the briefing to go check in with the prisoner in the interrogation room (so she exits the stage and appears in the video), feels forced.
The video segments, like the presentation, are technically expert, and truly give the aura of being inexpensively shot documentary footage: the soldiers show the self-consciousness of non-performers speaking on camera, the camera is clearly hand-held, there are awkward pauses. Once a prisoner is brought into an interrogation room, the footage mainly consists of Fusco, in English peppered with Arabic phrases, telling the prisoner to do things, and the prisoner clearly not understanding her. (It later becomes apparent that he speaks neither English nor Arabic, but Urdu.) She has him stand with his arms over his head, she has him take off and put on a hood, and at one point she brings a dog into the room. Whenever Fusco returns to her briefing, the detainee remains on screen, alone in the room, seeming frustrated more than scared.
The briefing/interrogation sections last about 40 minutes total, and I was never quite sure what to make of the video—was I supposed to feel empathy for the prisoner? Be appalled by the military's treatment of him? Believe it all to be staged, when reality is probably much worse? Focus on the way the two female interrogators were behaving and the gender dynamics in the room?
Perhaps the piece is meant to be replicating the American military's own seeming lack of self-consciousness, its resistance to grappling with the broad ethical issues raised by its treatment of prisoners in the war on terror. But I felt that the piece would have been stronger if it had acknowledged those issues before, or in addition to, looking at the way women function in the modern military.