Aftermath 1 Favorite 


Sep 16 2009


New York NY

The snapshots are thrust at us urgently, as if they were passports being shown at a border crossing, official proofs of national identity. Mostly, they are prosaic pictures of family members or houses. Sometimes a diploma will be offered up instead, or theater reviews clipped from newspapers or a membership card to a duck-hunting club. Later, other, more frightening, pictures will be shown, but they all serve the same function.

For the men and women assembled in “Aftermath,” the smart and sobering documentary drama that opened on Tuesday night at the New York Theater Workshop, these flimsy objects have more than sentimental value. They are confirmations that all of the characters onstage are citizens of a country called Iraq, a place that they haven’t visited recently, but one that they love and that still exists. Or does it?

Assembled by its creators, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, from interviews with Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, “Aftermath” might be said to be set in limbo. Its performers, first seen sitting rigid on benches with their backs to us, seem to exist in an eternal waiting room.

When they turn around to tell their stories, with a courtly politeness that eventually shades into a sorrowing, baffled rage, there’s no doubt that it is we, the Americans in the dark, to whom they’re speaking. It was our country invading theirs, in 2003, that brought them to the point that, as one puts it, “I am floating between here and nowhere.”

If you have read news reports or watched television coverage of life in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, you have heard accounts similar to those described here. But “Aftermath,” being a live play, doesn’t allow you the distance afforded by reading a magazine or watching a screen, when you can turn the page or change the channel. The exiles whose tales of displacement are related here may be embodied by actors, but you often feel that it’s the people they are portraying who are demanding the courtesy of your attention. How can you turn away? This aura of fraught intimacy has been achieved with subtle ingenuity by Mr. Jensen and Ms. Blank, a husband-and-wife team whose previous collaborations include “The Exonerated,” a similarly conceived docudrama about American prisoners on death row. Directed by Ms. Blank, “Aftermath” is shaped to make us feel as if we were the unseen interviewers, to whom coffee or tea is offered by our guarded but hospitable subjects. An interpreter, Shahid (Fajer Al-Kaisi), is on hand to provide context and, of course, English.

The first words spoken, by Rafiq (Laith Nakli), a pharmacist, are in Arabic, which Shahid interprets. From that point, the performers speak mostly English, yet the illusion of their speaking in a foreign language is sustained, with asides both humorous and despairing between the translator and the interviewees.

At first they don’t seem like terribly exciting company. They are mostly members of the middle or intellectual classes — a dermatologist, a theater director, a cook, a cleric — and they initially exude a strained, rather irritating good humor. When they talk about Iraq in the days before the Americans arrived, they present a world too harmonious to be believed, though none felt much affection for Saddam.

“A beautiful life,” says Yassar (Amir Arison, in a witty portrait of a natural showoff), the dermatologist, of his years in Baghdad.

“We were friends,” Rafiq says of his interdenominational neighborhood in Falluja. “We didn’t care the difference.” But of course it’s easy to turn what you once knew into Eden when everything that’s followed has been hell.

The characters in “Aftermath” take turns describing how life changed after the invasion, and how a delicately balanced coexistence was sent swirling into a dangerous chaos, where no one was sure who was on what side. Some of their descriptions are memorably visceral. Basima (Leila Buck), an Iraqi Christian, on first hearing the bombs dropped on Baghdad: “You don’t feel your eardrums from the sound.”

Others are metaphoric, reflective. “Our humanity is drifting from their humanity in four or five different directions,” Shahid says. “So far you can’t reach either side.”

The circumstances that led these people to leave Iraq vary. But they are all harrowing, some almost unbearably so. And you understand exactly why Basima, in a hospital after a car fire that took off most of her skin, was willing to accept her father’s lies about what happened to the rest of her family.

“After a while, I stopped asking,” she says, “so I could just stay in the story he was telling me.”

Rafiq, the pharmacist, describes watching the torture and murder of his nephew by a group of American soldiers, who appear to have been mercenaries. His ingratiating affability dissolves, and he suddenly erupts into a cri de coeur:

“I just want to understand. Who is the criminal? Who is the suspect? Who is the judge? Who is executing?”

Like most of the performances here, Mr. Nakli’s Rafiq had initially seemed stilted, ill at ease. He becomes utterly real in rage, and you realize that the earlier woodenness of his performance is a well-chosen calculation.

The most resonantly familiar story here is that of Abdul-Aliyy (Demosthenes Chrysan), an imam, who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib because the guards at his mosque carried guns (sanctioned, he says, by the American authorities). You can feel the involuntary shudder in the audience when the prison’s name is first spoken. And the translator, as if acting on that shudder, explains that many Americans feel shame about Abu Ghraib.

The imam responds with icy fierceness: “You know, I thank these people for their feelings. There are mistakes for which apologies are not enough.”

The ensemble members — who also include Maha Chehlaoui, Daoud Heidami, Omar Koury and Rasha Zamamiri — create specific characters while also suggesting a sense of identities unmoored. Feelings of ambivalence, confusion, sadness and bewilderment assume concrete and evocative forms. But there is also a sense that much of what happened to these people defies tidy narrative.

“Translate that,” Basima says abruptly to Shahid, after reluctantly telling the story of the conflagration that nearly killed her. And the directive takes on a bigger, more unsettling meaning. Can such things ever be translated in a way that would make them comprehensible?


By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; directed by Ms. Blank; sets by Richard Hoover; costumes by Gabriel Berry; lighting by David Lander; music and sound by David Robbins. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; William Russo, managing director. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 239-6200. Through Oct. 4. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

WITH: Fajer Al-Kaisi (Shahid), Amir Arison (Yassar), Leila Buck (Basima), Maha Chehlaoui (Fadilah), Demosthenes Chrysan (Abdul-Aliyy), Daoud Heidami (Asad), Omar Koury (Fouad), Laith Nakli (Rafiq) and Rasha Zamamiri (Naimah).

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