Presumed Innocent

Presumed Innocent

Unlike news reports, theater isn’t expected to stick to the facts. By nature, the form is duplicitous, built on a sandy foundation of make-believe and pretense.


Unlike news reports, theater isn’t expected to stick to the facts. By nature, the form is duplicitous, built on a sandy foundation of make-believe and pretense. Good documentary drama exploits its inherent paradox: Creating artifice from verbatim texts, it uncovers truths by playing on the tension between what’s real and what’s invented. Typically, it reveals not only the unfolding of a troubling event but also–by exposing a gap between history and its representation–gives us the critical distance to assess the contradictions, hows and whys of that unfolding.

Perhaps it’s too early to achieve such critical distance on the US interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where some 500 men deemed “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror” are being held without charges in 8-by-10-foot metal cages, often shackled, isolated, subjected to abuse and, until the Supreme Court ruling on June 28, lacking recourse to challenge their detention. At least that’s what the makers of Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom seem to have decided. Created in London at the Tricycle Theatre, and currently running at the Culture Project in downtown Manhattan, this moving chronicle, focusing on four men from England snatched from their lives and thrown into detention, concerns itself primarily with telling the appalling tale.

The first of three acts offers the Kafkaesque accounts of how the men came to be arrested: With wit and simmering rage, Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah) describes how he and his brother Bisher (Waleed Zuaiter) are arrested in Gambia, where they’d gone to establish a peanut oil business. After twenty-seven days, Wahab is released; Bisher is shipped to Gitmo, where he languishes still. So, too, does Moazzem Begg (Aasif Mandvi), whose story is told by his bereft and bewildered father (Harsh Nayyar). A British citizen who had moved to Afghanistan to set up a school and then to lay water pipes, Moazzem crosses the border to Pakistan when the American invasion begins. One night he is dragged from his home, stuffed into the trunk of a car and thrown down what England’s Lord Justice Johan Steyn calls the “legal black hole” that is Guantánamo. (Steyn’s blistering words–taken from a November 2003 lecture–open and close the play.) Manchester-born Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones) relates his own story, explaining how a sort of vagabonding spiritual pilgrimage to Pakistan lands him first in a Taliban jail as a suspected British spy, and then in Cuba as a suspected Islamist terrorist. Al-Harith was one of five British nationals released in March 2004 after two harrowing years. To this day, he says, “they didn’t give me a reason for being in there.”

These intercut narratives–drawn from interviews conducted by the playwrights, journalist Victoria Brittain and novelist Gillian Slovo–powerfully suggest that the United States has rounded up suspects by going on a fishing expedition in Muslim waters. As Act II moves inside the prison camp, and actors in orange jumpsuits deliver increasingly desperate words taken from their letters home, the play’s subtitle acquires even more pungent irony: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” comes from a sign over the camp, reminding American officers of their duty there. Act III centers on the release of two of the men and on Moazzem Begg’s apparent mental disintegration. Along with these personal stories, monologues by human rights attorneys and sympathetic politicians provide scathing critiques and legal analysis. (And occasionally platitudinous justification is pronounced by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, played with perfectly pompous bravado by Robert Langdon Lloyd.)

These critical commentaries baldly–and rightly–state that Guantánamo embodies the Bush Administration’s imperious disregard for the Geneva Conventions, other international human rights instruments, the Constitution and even the separation of powers. But these conclusions are asserted, not dramatized through a complex theatrical experience that might allow audiences–especially in the United States–to confront the extremism of our government and our ambivalent responses to our own fear. Since September 11 many liberals have felt understandably divided between their commitment to civil liberties and their concerns about security.

It’s a pity Guantánamo fails to explore these tensions, because documentary theater possesses exactly the means to both engage us emotionally and give us a cold look at our relationship to historical events. Think of the way Nazi rhetoric’s material power becomes the terrifying subject of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, the 1965 play based on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, how the Vietnam War comes intimately home in Emily Mann’s Still Life (1980) or how the competing meanings made of the Crown Heights conflict of 1991 in Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1993) reveal the disparities in lives and interpretive realities of Brooklyn neighbors.

If these works display a festering wound for inspection while Guantánamo invites us simply to feel the sting, the difference comes not just from the fact that the earlier pieces look back on irresolvable past occurrences while Guantánamo grapples with an ongoing crisis. It comes from style.

Guantánamo‘s principal mechanism is identification. The painstaking and painful detail with which it describes individual shattered lives humanizes the detainees, rescuing them from orange-jumpsuit anonymity and, more urgently, from the subhuman category of “terrorist.” We hear of their boyhood pranks and adolescent ideals, listen as they pine for their children and express loving concern for their parents. We see them brutally shoved and chained into cramped postures. We watch them go mad with boredom and fear. This is no small thing at a time when Muslim men are caricatured and demonized in mass media, not to mention in real life. Though the stage presents several simultaneous realities–the camp’s wire cages and their hard beds share space with tables and chairs for Mr. Begg and Wahab and other characters from the outside–the acting is highly representational. As in sentimental naturalism, the actors fully embody the characters, plaintively emoting and pouring on the pathos.

The trouble is, this aesthetic choice in both the selection of “spoken evidence” and in the direction (by Nicholas Kent and Sacha Wares) contributes to a conflation between the detainees’ essential humanity and their presumed innocence, as if the one depended on the other, and as if the former were proof of the latter. By depicting their “humanity” in such a poignant fashion, the play almost inclines us to view them as innocent, even if they’re not. The play never directly states that those who have not been released are not fundamentalist extremists who were preparing to commit violence (though one way or another all the detained characters assert that they do not belong in the camp). But it creates–and banks on–the impression that all are regular guys who never did anything wrong. Maybe they didn’t. The difficult point is, that shouldn’t matter. It’s easy to condemn the United States for denying due process and human rights to men above suspicion, and condemned it should be. Guantánamo never challenges us to support such rights for men who may, in fact, be guilty.

In this respect, as in others, the play closely resembles the documentary performance that ran at the Culture Project from 2002 until earlier this year, The Exonerated. Assembled by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews with six people exonerated from death row, along with passages from their astonishingly slipshod trials, the play carries us through each one’s arrest, belligerent interrogation, trial, dreadful years (as many as twenty-two) on death row and then their bleakly incomplete reintegration into civilian life. Again, opposing the death penalty for people who committed no crime is, to say the least, a no-brainer. But The Exonerated does more than evoke sympathy for the wrongly convicted. Indeed, the overlapping stories of one botch and bungle after another amass into a larger critique of a criminal justice system gone out of control as it criminalizes the poor.

One way The Exonerated shifts the emphasis to the system is by using a starkly presentational style: Actors (among them celebrities like Judy Collins, Richard Dreyfuss and Alanis Morissette) sit on stools in a row across the stage, their scripts perched in front of them on music stands. They read with affect, but never get mawkish. Like the formalism of Peter Weiss’s play, the disjunction among the three characters in Emily Mann’s and the mediating presence of Anna Deavere Smith beneath all the characters she portrays, this approach signals audiences that empathy is not the only thing the play is after. (The Culture Project is borrowing at least a marketing ploy from its earlier success: Desmond Tutu is taking a turn as Lord Steyn in Guantánamo.)

In the New York context, at least, one Guantánamo character seems to stand in for the audience: Tom Clark, the brother of a woman murdered on 9/11 while at work at the World Trade Center. Like his sister, who, he tells us, “would have been incensed” about “this Guantánamo thing,” Clark is a liberal who “genuinely care[s] about the Middle East.” And he is incensed, “furious at the length of detention of these people, furious because those who are innocent have been, have lost three years of their life, much like you know I lost…. I can’t imagine a worse thing for any person.” But “the people who led to her death”? Clark is clear: “Yeh. Lock ’em up. Throw away the key.”

Sure. But even in our identification with Clark, we might still believe in due process. How to compass that possibility, emotionally and politically, is what we might have practiced in a less sentimental, more shaded Guantánamo.

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