As our nation headed for war in Iraq, Jerry Quickley, a poetry slammer and member of the “alternative” press — he does a show for Pacifica Radio Network — headed to Baghdad. He wanted to view and report on the war from the perspective of ordinary Iraqi citizens, something he couldn’t do embedded with the U.S. military (nor would they have offered to embed him). His lyrical but limited one-man show “Live From the Front,” part of the Center Theater Group’s “Solomania!” offering, tells the story of how he got in, what he saw and, most harrowing of all, how he barely got out.
It’s really a heckuva story, and it’s both surprising and unsurprising that we haven’t seen more of this type of work: true, first-hand observations of shocked and awed Baghdad unfiltered through the factory-like familiarities that make up network news.
Quickley’s eloquent, hip-hop-infused descriptions of scenes we’ve observed mostly in dispassionate news footage — collapsing urban complexes, desert minefields littered with burned-out buses — take on a new immediacy when related with the sense of fear only those present could conjure and only an artist can make fresh. We have some removed concept of what these visions look like, but Quickley fills us in on the decibel level of the bombing (“Baghdad was unstrung in a corset of sound”) and the scent of burning bodies.
Quickley, a very big African-American man with an imposing presence and a lumbering gait, starts his story in Los Angeles and New York, where he bids farewell to friends and family in both cities and fills us in on his Manhattan upbringing and his unsparing politics — Nike asked him to write a poem; he compared the company to a slave ship.
He then heads to Amman, Jordan, in search of a hard-to-get visa to enter Iraq in the days before the bombings are to begin. How he finally gets one involves the pictures of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali he keeps in his wallet.
Holed up in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, Quickley tries hard to escape his “minders” so he can interview ordinary citizens, who constantly offer to give him a free haircut. (“Apparently,” he quips, “my natty mop was an assault on their aesthetic.”)
After narrating what it was like to feel the concussive power of the initial bombings, and showing some emotionally evocative footage of the dog he saw circling a square in Baghdad, Quickley’s story takes a sharp turn as Saddam Hussein’s government decides to deport him. His minders must escort him — at the height of the initial U.S. campaign — out of the relative safety of Baghdad, through the desert to the Jordanian border.
Having set up the natural beauty of the desert on his arrival — “the palest of purples, the sweetest of yellows” — Quickley describes a series of nightmarish scenes, like seeing a shepherd get blown apart by a landmine and, for a while at least, survive.
Quickley’s show is best when he steps forward, out of the logical narrative thrust of his story, and delivers a poetry jam. He has a musician’s sense of rhythm and crescendo, and the form allows him to combine his attitude and his observations without any self-consciousness.
His more straightforward storytelling isn’t as effective. It’s well worded and well spoken but rarely insightful. He can do imitations of the people he meets, but they’re always too short to create character, and Quickley and director reg e gaines are too quick to turn the subject back to Quickley’s reactions.
This show ultimately feels a lot more about Quickley than it does about the people he sought to give a voice to, but the author-performer himself doesn’t offer any true sense of how his experience changed him, or if it really did at all. So while Quickley’s subject is essential, his story dramatic and his poetry potent, “Live From the Front” feels strangely muffled in its overall impact.