Supported by private grants and a commission from New York Theater Workshop, Jessica Blank and husband Erik Jensen went to Jordan last year to interview dozens of Iraqi refugees living in Amman. After translating and shaping the material, the scribes collaborated with NYTW on a series of readings that eventually became “Aftermath,” a superbly staged and beautifully acted testimonial to the innocent victims of an ugly war. In putting a human face on the thousands of displaced civilians who lost their homes, their families and their history in a catastrophe not of their making, this powerful piece of agitprop theater challenges us all.
The minimalist set (pairs of chairs on platform tiers) and laser-point lighting (shafts of light piercing the metaphorical darkness) follow the textbook rules for staging a documentary theater piece. Which basically boils down to taking the audience hostage.
The rest is all acting — and brilliant acting it is, to hold us mesmerized through a series of monologues in which eight refugees recount the circumstances that uprooted them from their homeland.
Just listing the professions of the characters, who represent a cross-section of middle-class life, is enough to shake any preconceptions about the sort of people whose lives were upended by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There’s a dermatologist, married chefs, a young Christian mother, an elderly imam, a theater director and his artist wife and a pharmacist — all intelligent, articulate, perfectly ordinary people, and not a terrorist among them.
There’s also a translator, a genial young man named Shahid (Fajer Al-Kaisi) who acts as both conduit and buffer in this potentially awkward confrontation between the citizens of two nations still at war. Shahid is almost sheepish about his dual duties — encouraging the Iraqis to tell their stories while keeping their shocking testimonials from burning up the stage. In Al-Kaisi’s sympathetic perf, Shahid seems to have given himself the additional chore of protecting the speakers — his countrymen, as he comes to embrace them — from further pain.
Not having a dramatic scene structure, the material is paced out in beats that deepen in tone and escalate in emotional intensity as the piece shifts incrementally from life under Saddam Hussein to life under American occupation.
In the beginning, the refugees happily recall living normal lives at peace with their neighbors. Their memories are sweet and often funny; the heartbreak comes from seeing them hold up precious photographs — and watching them remember all they’ve lost.
Rafiq (Laith Nakli), the pharmacist, speaks of the abundance of mosques, churches and synagogues in Fallujah. (“We had Christians, we had Shi’a, we had Sunni, we were friends, we didn’t care the difference.”) The cooks, Fouad (Omar Koury) and Naimah (Rasha Zamamiri), show us snapshots of the house they built (“with our own hands”) in Baghdad. Yassar (Amir Arison), the dermatologist, brags about the flashy cars he once owned and brandishes membership cards to his “elite” clubs.
They also share shattering memories of how the Americans they initially welcomed botched the “liberation” through sheer ignorance about the language, laws and customs of the country and its people.
Stepping out of his translator’s role to testify about his own experiences at the hands of a rogue militia, Shahid speaks of the breakdown of order when the U.S. Army dismantled both the Iraqi army and its police force. Asad (Daoud Heidami), the theater director, and his wife, Fadilah (Maha Chehlaoui), recall the Al Qaeda agents who poured in from Iran and Syria during this lawless period, cutting off utilities, shutting down schools, issuing fatwas, killing people for dancing.
Everyone represented in this company lost someone in the war. Some — like Basima (Leila Buck), the young Christian wife whose entire family was killed by a misdirected missile — can hardly bring themselves to speak of their losses. Most of them visibly struggle to keep their minds from closing and hearts from hardening to the conquering nation that brought them “shock and awe” but can’t distinguish between one Arab (or non-Arab) and another.
It’s a jolt, then, to watch jovial Rafiq boil over with rage at the memory of seeing his nephew killed by American mercenaries. Even more unnerving are the memories of the imam, Abdul-Aliyy (Demosthenes Chrysan, in a passionate perf), arrested at his mosque on a misunderstanding and dragged off to Abu Ghraib prison.
Of all these victims, the imam lost more than most — family killed, home destroyed, papers and passport gone, virtual banishment from his country. So it’s hard to answer him when he looks out on the audience and says: “I thank these people for their feelings, but there are mistakes for which apologies are not enough.”