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A CurtainUp Review

Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom
By Simon Saltzman

The type of justice meted out at Guantanamo Bay is likely to make martyrs of the prisoners in the moderate Muslim world with whom the West must work to ensure world peace and stability. --- Lord Justice Steyn
Kathleen Chalfant
Kathleen Chalfant (Photo: Brian Michael Thomas )
The argument continues over the US's probably illegal lease agreement to use Cuba's Guantanamo base. There is no argument, however, that it is being used as a concentration camp for the sake of freedom. Although it has recently been announced that a series of pre-trial hearings have been set, more than 600 people from various nations suspected of being Taliban soldiers from Afghanistan and al-Qaida are being held captive without legal representation or the right to communicate with their families. While a US appeals court ruled in December, 2004 that they cannot be held indefinitely and cannot be denied lawyers, the terrible situation continues.

There is increasing rage and frustration among the citizens of the world as stories come out of the physical abuse afforded prisoners and their possible execution by a simple decree from a secret military court. This condition has prompted more and more citizens, notably writers, to speak out about these human rights violations. Journalist Victoria Brittain and novelist Gillian Slovo have assembled a probing and profound docudrama "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, that has everything to do with our inability to confront and take a stand against unacceptable and intolerable acts of inhumanity and nothing to do with our right to defend freedom. The tag on the title comes from the sign outside camp X-Ray at Guantanamo.

Commissioned and produced by the Tricycle Theater in North London in January 2004, and subsequently moved to the New Ambassadors Theater on the West End (where it is still playing), Guantanamo… is produced in New York by Allan Buchman and The Culture Project (whopreviously mounted the documentary The Exonerated in this same space) and staged by its original directors Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares. While one can only wonder about the hundreds of stories yet untold, it is an awesome achievement for the authors. They have compiled a tightly knit, convincing and compelling range of testimony. Something to think about is what shape their play would have taken had it included a single justifying and supportable response from even one member of the government which denied or refused numerous requests. One therefore cannot complain about any lack of fairness to the other side.

The focus of the docudrama is on the crisscrossing monologues, often laced with bracing wit, of the five British detainees released in late February; plus the letters of those still held captive, the testimony of family members, lawyers, and public officials. One gets the feeling of the detention center immediately upon entering the theater. The wide stage area, flanked by two mesh metal cages with cots, is filled with rows of small tables and chairs. The pre-dawn call to prayer is sung from the stage by the prisoners within the effectively bleak and ominous setting designed by Miriam Buether and highlighted by Johanna Town's roving lighting. Buether also designed the costumes, notably the one-piece orange uniforms worn by the detainees.

While the detainees are referred to by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "legal combatants" and not prisoners of war, they have, in the words of Lord Justice Steyn fallen into "the legal black hole." As both roles are played by Robert Langdon Lloyd, it is worth noting that Lloyd captures Rumsfeld, as a stiff-necked smug double-talker and Steyn, as expected, as a level-headed and impassioned interpreter of the impossible situation. The speech that Steyn made on November 23, 2003 at Lincoln's Inn, London concludes, "The president has made public in advance his personal view of the prisoners as a group: he has described them all as killers."

Listening to the occasional yet consistently confounding statements made by Rumsfeld will undoubtedly do more than ruffle your feathers. However it remains for Mr. Begg (Harsh Nayyar) to most poignantly chronicle the experiences of his increasingly mentally unstable son Moazzam Begg (Aasif Mandvi). Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones) will leave you doubly stunned -- by his incredible tale, from being initially accused of being a British spy and then a Taliban/Al Qaeda collaborator and also his riveting account of how inhumanly prisoners were manacled and humiliated. A young British business man Bisher al-Rawi (Waled Zuaiter) relates the horrifying sequence of his imprisonments from Gambia to Bagram and finally to Guantanamo; and that of his brother Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah), an entrepreneur who is arrested for bringing a battery charger into Gambia.

Kathleen Chalfont brings subtly ironic shadings to her otherwise stern role as Gareth Peirce, Wahab al-Rawi's lawyer, who is able to convince British intelligence that the suspicious equipment is only a battery charger available at a local store. This, as the investigators are busy flying in a forensic expert from Bali to inspect it. Joris Stuyck is matter-of-factly detached as U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw able to accept the idea of British civilians charged by an American military tribunal.

Particular haunting is the performance of Jeffrey Brick as Tom Clarke, a young man who recalls how his sister was trapped in the first tower and "incinerated publicly.," He serves as a voice for everyone's immediate response to 9/11.

All the other performances give breadth to this "theater of testimony" and depth to these wrenching accounts. Although the play is structured solely from the facts regarding the British detainees, it is the fate of the other 650 that we are left pondering.

Resonating without sensationalism, the power of Guantanamo is that it is relevant and important in a time of crisis. Like other excellent examples of""theater of testimony" -- Anna Deveare Smith's "Twilight Los Angeles 1992," Emily Mann's "Execution of Justice," Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project - it lets the facts speak for themselves.

Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom
Assembled by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo
Directed by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares,
Cast: Jeffrey Brick, Kathleen Chalfant, Steven Crossley, Ramsey Faragallah, Andrew Stewart-Jones, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Aasif H. Mandvi, Harsh Nayyar, Maulik Pancholy, Joris Stuyck and Waleed F. Zuaiter.
Set and Costume Design: Miriam Buether and lighting design is by . Bonnie Brady will serve as Production Stage Manager
Lighting Design: Johanna Town Sound Design: Bill Grady
Running time: 2 hours, including an intermission
45 Bleecker Street Theatre (at Lafayette) (212) 253-9983
From August 20, 2004; opening August 26, 2004
Tuesday through Saturday at 8PM with matinee performances on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3PM.
Tickets: $55 and $60
Closing 12/15/04
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on August 25th performance
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