Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of A Charlie Brown Christmas
At Freedom Daze's core is the intriguing, alarming and confounding story of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Since the details of her story may not be well known by all readers, I feel a little more background than usual is necessary. Dr. Siddiqui is a brilliant scientist and activist born in Pakistan, who earned a degree in biology from M.I.T and a Ph.D. from Brandeis. During those years, in addition to award-winning scholarship, she started a family with her physician husband, while volunteering in the Muslim community providing social services and proselytizing strict observance of Islam.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Siddiqui became increasingly involved in Islamic activism. In 2002, she and her husband were questioned by the FBI about suspicious purchases. Soon after, the couple returned to Pakistan with their three children, where they were divorced. In 2003 Siddiqui married the nephew of an al-Quaeda leader who, after being captured by the United States, named her as an agent of al-Quaeda, information some claim was provided under torture.
Siddiqui was then listed among the seven most dangerous people sought by U.S. agencies. As the only woman in the group, she became "the most dangerous woman in the world." From 2003 to 2008 Siddiqui disappeared. Some reports state she was captured and held at the notorious Bagram prison, the only female inmate and known as Prisoner 650. She was also called the Ghost of Bagram by the other inmates, owing to her loud wailing and moaning throughout the night. She claims that during this time she was repeatedly raped. However, the U.S. and its allies denied having Siddiqui in captivity and claimed she had gone into hiding.
In 2008, she suddenly reappeared, only to be captured by U.S. authorities. It was then claimed that while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan she fired shots at military personnel. She was shot in return, sustaining life-threatening injuries, but recovered sufficiently to face trial in New York. She was convicted on charges of attempted murder but was never tried on charges of terrorism. Her sentence was 86 years in solitary confinement and she remains in a federal prison facility in Texas. Her supporters claim the charges and trial were a sham, citing lack of evidence that she fired any shots at all, and inconsistencies in the testimony of witnesses. She remains a lightning rod for those who believe that she is innocent and a victim of Islamophobia and the U.S.'s desperate efforts to claim progress in its "war on terror."
Whether innocent or not, Aafia Siddiqui's story is a bracing example of power invoked by the United States in its fight against terrorism. Such powers and the climate of Islamophobia that took hold after September 11 and are being reinforced under the current federal administration are the basis for the other facets of Siddiqui's play. Many of these are comic in their construction: fake games shows, such as lining up contestants to determine who is the most Muslim, based on arch stereotypes; a pageant to pick "the world's most dangerous woman," with contenders representing various Minnesota communities; a TV talk show; middle school students delivering their History Day reports; and a query as to why a white person can't be a terrorista Muslim who commits mass murder is a terrorist, but a white person who does the same thing is a shooter, or suspect.
Siddiqui gets a lot of mileage from a running sketch of a white couple peering over their fence to check for "something" going on, as in "If you see something, say something." The woman is very concerned about a group of people gathering in the distance. She is sure they are "doing something over there." When the man points out, "everyone is somewhere doing something; we're doing something," the woman retorts that she doesn't know what kind of something the others are doing, and she cannot abide that. As it turns out, the group she is eyeing are Muslim neighbors coming together for mutual support to endure the climate of suspicion and judgment in which they find themselves.
In this production, director Suzy Messerole moved with finger-snapping speed from scene to scene, and from incisive sketch comedy to grueling narratives of torture and abasement, with a firm flourish. The lighter-hearted bits deal with troubling issues, but provide enough levity to endure the truly horrific representational segments. Her work was greatly aided by Kalen Rainbow Keir and Peter Marrow's sound design, which simulated the haunting sounds of the Bagram prison, and Jesse Cogswell's lighting design, with dramatic shadows that heightened the emotional impact.
The ensemble cast were all wonderful, each switching off to play a wide variety of roles. It is no doubt intentional that the cast was composed of actors who are black, Asian, south Asian and Middle Eastern, conveying the diversity of the Islamic world. Playwright Siddiqui herself gave a muscular performance as Prisoner 650whom she also calls "the girl in the yellow dress," for the two met as girls when both were students in Zambia. The playwright's memories of that meeting, and of the simple diversion of forks in the road that led them on different paths, was one of the inspirations that drove her to write Freedom Daze. In some segments of the play, Siddiqui played herself experiencing the fear of being hunted down for daring to write a sympathetic portrayal of Aafia Siddiqui, a gripping window into the emotional turmoil wrought by the shadow of unyielding prejudice.
First performed at the sadly departed Intermedia Arts in 2015, Freedom Daze continues to be updated to reflect the current moment in our society. Exposed Brick Theatre gave it a formidable production that captured the cultural and political breezes of 2018. The story will no doubt continue to shift over time, and hopefully the play will reappear to bring audiences up to the moment in understanding the nature of fears, prejudice and injustice that cloud the skies over many of our countrymen and women.
Exposed Brick Theatre's Freedom Daze played November 29 - December 9, 2018, as part of the ARTshare series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For information on ARTshare go to southerntheater.org. For information on Exposed Brick Theatre go to www.exposedbricktheatre.org.
Playwright: Aamera Siddiqui; Director: Suzy Messerole; Scenic and Props Design: Elizabeth Coleman; Light Design: Jesse Cogswell; Sound Design: Kalen Rainbow Keir and Peter Morrow; Video Design: Kelley Meister; Stage Manager and Assistant Director: Sequoia Hauck.
Cast: Lauren Rae Anderson, Alex Barreto Hathaway, Eliza Rasheed; Siddeeqah Shabazz, Aamera Siddiqui, and Mohammed Yabdri.