Theater Commentary: After Aftermath

At the invitation of AF editor Bill Marx and at the risk of further delaying my observations on the New World Jazz Composers Octet, I’m straying from the jazz beat to offer some words on ArtsEmerson’s presentation of Aftermath at the Paramount. The regrettably short run of this New York Theatre Workshop production (October 27–31) will have closed by the time you read this.

Aftermath by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA, 02111, through October 31.

By Steve Elman

This is not a “review.” Call it a meditation.

A scene from The New York Theatre Workshop production of Aftermath.

You may have heard of the conceit—Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who also compiled the script for The Exonerated, assembled the text for Aftermath from interviews with Iraqi survivors of the recent unpleasantness, people who were living in Jordan at the time of the interviews. On a bare stage, eight actors bring the words of the refugees to life, and a ninth actor portraying their translator knits the elements together. The actors channel these people, letting the Iraqis speak directly through their stagecraft to the Americans in the audience.

Blank and Jensen want us to confront our own personal complicity in the destruction of a society. For me, it was a deeply disturbing experience. I confess: as the lights went down, I had already begun to put the Iraq era into a convenient box in my mind—“that horrible mistake made by the Bush administration that the Obama administration got stuck with”—but 90 minutes later, these nine great actors, under Blank’s careful direction, had ripped that box to shreds.

Ted Sod, portraying an imam imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, has been justly singled out for praise by other observers. The climax of the play is his passionate cry that Americans and their children owe Iraqis present and future for what was done in our name. But what gave that moment such force for me was his subsequent apology for the outburst: Sod seemed genuinely sorry that he had violated the rules of hospitality to reveal his feelings. I was simultaneously ashamed for him and for myself.

So, kudos to Ted Sod. But let me praise each of the other actors for selfless investment in character that seemed unlike traditional modes of “acting.”

Even though Fajer Al-Kaisi did not serve as a translator per se in the framework of the play, I came to rely on him psychologically in the way I have embraced translators/fixers when traveling, because he seemed to be a spiritual bridge between me and the society I had to confront. Leila Buck was riveting as a woman who lost her family and part of her face in a roadside bombing. Ryan Shams transcended his oily persona as a dermatologist to provide a personal view of the chaos inside Iraqi hospitals. Cooks Rasha Zamamiri and Barzin Akhavan were a seamless and sunny couple on stage, but they momentarily terrified me with the possibility that they might not escape across the border into Jordan. I found Ramsey Faragallah particularly affecting because his performance was so low-key; he disappeared into the character of a genial pharmacist describing the senseless killing of his nephew.

If the artist played by Maha Chelaoui and her companion, the theatre director played by Rufio Lerma, are slighter characters, it is perhaps because by the time of the interviews they had begun to recover from their experiences and make new lives in Jordan. On the other hand, even though the words of these artists seemed the least eloquent, they left me with some of the most disturbing echoes. I prize human creativity as my personal antidote to the meaninglessness and violence of real life, and what they said raised questions I don’t like to think about: In the face of true human agony, in the face of death and heartbreak and betrayal, lies and cruelty and torture, what can art say? What can art do?

I was going to conclude this piece by pointing out that the real subject of Aftermath isn’t Iraq. It’s the senselessness of all human conflict. Its message is that we should learn from our great mistake and go forward in future international affairs with caution and blah blah blah.

But this is about Iraq. It is a work of the now, and that’s how Blank and Jensen want us to hear it and feel it. I hope it is staged in Boston again before the Iraq box becomes a sealed coffin in your mind, and I hope that you see it.

Of course, Aftermath is not a work of dispassionate observation. It is polemic. I came to it knowing it would be polemic, prepared to do my penance and listen. It will not change many minds, I think. I’m sure that Dick Cheney would sit through it stonily and unmoved, convinced that what he had done was right. He would call me a bleeding heart, probably a fucking bleeding heart.

Nonetheless, I walked out of the magnificent Art Deco palace the Paramount has become once again without seeing any of the colors that had dazzled me when I went in. I kept saying to myself, “I came to understand that the Iraq invasion was predicated on lies. I came to be disgusted with what my country had done. But what did I do to reverse its progress other than vote for the Other Guy? What gives me the hubris to think that I am not personally culpable for the suffering of these people?”

Ultimately, I have to put those feelings back in their box if I am not going to set aside my American life, travel to Jordan, and dedicate myself to the recompense of these people I have wronged. I have to live with that. So do you.

And I have to live with the fact that writing these words does nothing to right those wrongs.

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.

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