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.)