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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom is a Deeply Moving Docudrama

Also see Richard's reviews of The Voysey Inheritance,
Candide and String Fever

Guantanamo
Joseph Kamal and
Julia Brothers

The Brava! For Women in Arts company is presenting the West Coast premiere of Guantanamo: Bound to Defend Freedom at the Brava Theatre in San Francisco through April 24th. The drama is called “verbatim theatre” and is based on the personally stories, legal opinions and political debates of 650 detainees from all over the world held at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba after the 9/11 incident.

Guantanamo's authors are journalist and writer Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo who center the production on five British detainees who were finally released after two years of false imprisonment. None were ever charged of a crime. The captives' letters from prison are read aloud by actors playing the prisoners and their relatives. Additional material includes sworn testimony of family members, lawyers and public officials such as Lord Justice Steyn and Defense Rumsfeld, who calls the detainees "legal combatants" and not subject to the Geneva Convention.

Guantanamo opened at the London Tricycle Theatre in 2003 and immediately was a hot ticket due to thumbs up reviews. It moved to the West End theatre the New Ambassador. The American premiere occurred last summer at the 45 Bleecker Theatre in New York where it received great reviews. The drama immediately sets out to show that the treatment of the prisoners is not in line with Geneva Convention rules since the American government does not consider them POWs but “legal detainees” who don’t seem to get fair trials.

The five stories told on stage are from Muslems who were innocent of knowing anything about terrorist acts against the United States. We see the thoughtless, uninformed nature of the government trying to strike back at the Taliban during the after effects of the World Trade Center attacks. For example, a British Muslem businessman who is trying to install a peanut oil processing plant in Gambia has been arrested by the government, probably on orders of the C.I.A. He is flown to the Kandahar base then to Guantanamo where he is considered an enemy combatant, according to the U.S. Government. There he spends two years without a trial.

The most heartfelt and poignant story is told by Mr. Beggs, a British banker of Mid-Eastern decent who was high ranking in the Iraq Army under the deposed king and went to the UK with his family. The father and son relate the horrifying story of the son's arrest and internment; he is a young idealist who wants to help the Afghan people with democratic education and is mysteriously flown to Cuba. The son writes that he has not seen the outside for two years and has been chained in humiliating ways many times. The only book he is allowed is the Koran and he has read it seven times. His life is to stay in his cage with little or no exercise, even walking.

The acting in the “verbatim” piece is excellent with some of the members of the New York cast playing various roles. Harsh Nayyar (New York Guantanamo and Meeting By the River, and Homebody/Kabul at Berkeley Rep) plays Mr. Beggs. He gives a touching performance as a father who loves his son very much but cannot help him. Joseph Kamal (New York Guantanamo and Dinner at Eight plus Fete De La Nuit at Berkeley Rep) as the son Moazzam Beggs gives a winning performance. Ramsey Faragallah (New York Guantanamo, After Play, Stonewall, Orestes plus many TV appearances) gives a striking performance as the entrepreneur who wants to set up the peanut oil plant, Wahab al-Rawi. His performance shows the most insight into the interrogation practices of both sides. Dion Graham (New York Not About Nightingales, Lobby Hero plus many TV appearances) plays Jamal al Harith who tells an unbelievable tale of first being accused as a British spy and then a Taliban/Al Qaeda collaborator. His description of how the prisoners at the naval base are inhumanly manacled is sickening. Ramiz Monsef (Fete De Le Nuit, Eurydice at Berkeley Rep and Time of Your Life at A.C.T.) is excellent in the role of a prisoner Bisher al-Rawi.

Guantanamo's Caucasian cast is also excellent. Robert Langdon Lloyd (former member of the R.S.C. and Peter Brook’s Center for International de Creations Theatrale) gives an impressive performance as Donald Rumsfeld and Lord Steyn. Julia Brothers (Life X 3 at Marin, Nickel and Dimed at TheatreWorks and Brava), the only female member of the cast, gives a sardonic performance as the lawyer for Bisher al-Rawi. Nick Sholley (Dooley at NCTC and The Seagull at Marin Art and Garden Center) is very good as the confused American whose sister was killed in the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center. Steven Crossley (New York Guantanamo and Measure for Measure at the National Theatre London) and Joris Stuyck (New York Guantanamo and Much Ado About Nothing) have small roles but they are effective in the parts.

Genevieve Compton and Nancy L. Mancias have used the same set design as the New York and London productions. One enters the theatre to see the prisoners in orange jumpsuits, some in metal mesh cages with others on cots at the front of the stage, and rows of small tables and chairs directly in front of the audience. This is an unwelcoming and threatening setting. There is a pre-dawn call to prayer sung by the prisoners as the drama starts. There is an intermission 40 minutes into the piece with the house lights coming up, but the actors stay on stage doing their exercises or just reading. At the end of the two hour production, the actors do not take bows. The audience slowly leaves the stage with nary a whisper. The actors stay on stage as if they are there forever. It is an effective piece of drama.

Robert Langdon Lloyd as Lord Justice Steyn of UK tells the audience, “The type of justice meted out at Guantanamo Bay is likely to make martyrs of the prisoners in the moderate Muslim world with whom the West must work to ensure world peace and stability.

Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom plays through April 24th at the Brava: Women In the Arts Theatre at 2789 24th Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-647-2822 or visit www.brava.org.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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