Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom
Of all the media a writer might consider for a political discussion – the Sunday editorial section, film documentaries, books - theatre is probably not the first to come to mind, though it’s certainly not without precedent. Guantanamo, which deals with the detention of persons the US Government terms “enemy combatants” at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, might be called a “stage documentary,” if there is such a term. Guantanamo, which premiered in London in 2004 and has since been produced Off-Broadway, is a documentary in the sense that it is based upon interviews with real-life detainees and their families as well as government officials and other public figures who have spoken on the issue. It’s dramatic in that it creates characters from some of the real-life detainees and their family members, but on balance this is primarily a presentation of ideas more than emotion. The script, primarily a series of short monologues taken from the interviews conducted by the authors, is weighted more heavily toward political argument than the human story.
This is not to say that the portrayals of the detainees (by Sean Nix, Christian Castro, Bobby Zaman and Hunter Stiebel) and their families (Anil Hurkadli, Vincent Mahler, and Michael Kingston) are not compelling. The performers give a human face to four apparently innocent detainees apprehended simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This personal perspective may not yet have been fully provided by news coverage of this situation, and the sensitive performances bring it fully to life. The detainees remain center stage through the performance in a playing area flanked on two sides in director Nick Bowling’s staging, with choruses of family members and involved observers beside them stage left and stage right. Projections onto screens behind each of the two audience seating areas provide still photos of the real life persons portrayed on stage – to whom the actors bear uncanny resemblances – further lending a realistic, documentary feeling to the piece.
The fates of some 500 detainees in a conflict that had claimed the lives of thousands might otherwise seem insignificant unless established in individual terms as authors Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo do here. Through other “characters,” including the British government officials Lord Steyn and Jack Straw, as well as the attorneys, the case against these American policies, and shock and exasperation toward them, is made. It is made, it must be noted, without effective rebuttal or explanation from the American government’s point of view, other than through a dramatized press conference in which actor Don Blair gives a spot-on impersonation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld inconsistently and unconvincingly attempting to explain and justify government policies regarding the detentions.
This is no “point-counterpoint” debate. The authors’ point of view is clearly that the US action is immoral and highly inconsistent with American principles of justice. Though some detainees have been released – including 3 of the 4 portrayed in the play – the government acknowledged that as of December 1, 2005, 505 people were still being held at Guantanamo. It’s a piece which asks its audience to listen. Though as visual as may be possible given the format of the text – there’s little movement, mostly just a shifting of focus to whichever of the 12 performers on stage throughout is talking – this is not a traditional theater experience in terms of narrative or visual storytelling. Yet, audiences willing to give it a listen will find it a provocative experience that may strengthen or challenge their political opinions, or perhaps cause them to explore this aspect of America’s defense and foreign policy further.
Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom runs through March 26, 2006 at Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets and further information are available at 773-281-TIME and at www.timelinetheatre.com. Regular ticket prices are $25, $15 for students with ID, and $5 for industry members with resume/headshot/card.