Play as Weapon

Discussing Guantánamo in terms of its theatrical merits is beside the point

In 1992, legendary Brazilian theater director, writer, and teacher Augusto Boal was elected to legislative office. Boal isn't the first or only stage artist to assume a position of political power in modern history: The playwright Václav Havel became president of what is now the Czech Republic in 1989, and in the U.K., actress Glenda Jackson has been a member of Parliament since 1992. But unlike the others, Boal's election to office came about almost by accident.

The force behind the "Theater of the Oppressed" -- a movement that searches for solutions to social problems facing individual communities (e.g., unemployment, inadequate health care, lack of housing, sexual violence, etc.) by letting actors and audience members interact directly -- Boal had spent many years in forced exile abroad. Under more favorable political conditions, the director returned to Rio in the late 1980s to develop his ideas further. But when a regime change led to a loss of support for his work, Boal threw his weight behind the Workers' Party in the 1992 elections.

Boal had it in mind that his company would "aestheticize the streets" by going about town singing songs, wearing masks, and staging shows based on topical issues. The Workers' Party thought it might also be a good publicity stunt if one of the actors presented himself as an electoral candidate. Boal's name was added to the ballot sheet. At first, Boal had no interest in winning. But when the lively theatrical "happenings" began to attract attention from the media, Boal's "campaign" gathered steam. He and his team realized that winning might be a good thing: It would give them, as they saw it, the power to create and transform laws democratically. To everyone's surprise, Boal won, and took his seat as one of six Workers' Party legislators for Rio on Jan. 1, 1993.

Man in a Cage: Nafees Hamid as Rhuhel Ahmed, 
Guantánamo detainee.
David Allen
Man in a Cage: Nafees Hamid as Rhuhel Ahmed, Guantánamo detainee.

His story is an extreme example of what the director calls "theater as politics." But in an age when high-profile movies such as Fahrenheit 9/11 appear to be the most effective artistic means of rallying support for a political cause, it's exciting to witness a new work for the stage that goes beyond the traditional function of art -- that of holding "a mirror up to nature," in Hamlet's words -- by playing a more active role in social concerns.

Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain's Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom aims to be a catalyst for political transformation, but unlike the theater of Boal and his followers, the work doesn't invite audience members to act out their reactions or engage in direct discussion onstage. Slovo and Brittain's actors don't even seek a response, in the traditional sense of the word: There's no applause, just the quiet shuffle of viewers leaving the stalls and orange jumpsuit-clad prisoners preparing for prayers in their cagelike cells.

Based on the verbatim testimonies of prisoners detained at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba -- which still holds about 540 suspected foreign terrorists, despite a few recent releases -- as well as interviews with lawyers, politicians, and prisoners' families, the play exposes the mistreatment of inmates by the military and the government. There are no full-frontal torture scenes here, but the matter-of-fact descriptions of prison life by the detainees, and the growing sense of helplessness among the lawyers and family members trying to free them, speak volumes. The accusations leveled against the U.S. government (and, in turn, the British government for its support of George Bush's war on terror) are direct: Far from espousing Truth, Justice, and the American Way, the administration is portrayed as being above the law -- ruthlessly determined to obliterate the enemy even if hundreds of innocent lives are squandered in the process.

Discussing Guantánamo in terms of its theatrical merits is beside the point. Sure, the performances are crisp and the direction rhythmic. But if you're looking for fully fledged characters, resonant metaphors, climax, catharsis, and snazzy lighting effects, you'll be disappointed. For Guantánamo is not so much a play as a weapon. What Slovo and Brittain -- both London-based journalists -- have achieved is the transformation of abstract reports from a faraway place into a concrete, utterly present reality.

Seeing itself, according to the press release, as a "potential catalyst for political activism around issues of civil liberties in the age of the Patriot Act," Guantánamo attracts attention to an important cause. While the play doesn't quite aestheticize the streets à la Boal, it's a budding case of theater as politics: Performances are being augmented with panels, media events, and activist campaigns created in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which handles Guantánamo human rights abuse cases.

Theater may not reach as wide an audience as film, but its great strength as a vehicle of political and social change stems from the fact that plays are relatively cheap, quick, and uncomplicated to put on. The Vagina Monologues, for example, has contributed to the movement to stop violence against women not only because of Eve Ensler's powerful writing, but also because it can so easily be mounted: Like the most efficient viral marketing campaign, the play has spawned thousands of productions worldwide and sparked grass-roots activism.

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