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Talking with "Aftermath" Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

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opednews.com Headlined to H4 10/12/09

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The documentary drama "Aftermath" has now extended its run at New York Theatre Workshop through October 18th. "Aftermath" tells the stories of eight Iraqi refugees, essentially in their own words. Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, who also directs, have agreed to answer questions via e-mail between shows. Welcome to OpEdNews. Can you tell our readers where the idea for this play came from?

The initial seed for "Aftermath" was hatched at New York Theater Workshop's annual summer residency at Dartmouth College. Jessica was there working on another play, "Liberty City"--one day at breakfast, she and NYTW's artistic director, Jim Nicola, were talking about the fact that there hadn't been any work done in the contemporary American theater about either of the wars that America is involved in, from the civilians' point of view. There had been plays created from the soldiers' points of view (though perhaps not enough), and from the points of view of the policy-makers, but nothing that got at what it is to be a regular person who just happens to live where the war is being played out.

We had previously written the documentary play "The Exonerated," based on interviews we conducted with exonerated death row inmates, and were searching for subject matter for our next documentary play. After Jessica returned from Dartmouth, we started talking about this as a potential subject, and refined the idea. Meanwhile, we continued to talk with NYTW's artistic staff about it, and by last June, NYTW secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to send us to Jordan to do the interviews for the piece.

You interviewed 35 refugees during the two weeks you were in Jordan. How did that go? Did you run into problems being Americans?

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We walked into the interview process unsure about how people would interact with us as Americans. We were open to whatever points of view people might have; like a journalist would, we were just looking for the story, no matter what that story might be. It would have been okay with us (and from our point of view, part of the story) if people had been angry with us, cautious, trepidatious, etc. But we found just the opposite.

Our interview subjects were enormously welcoming, open and gracious. Hospitality is highly valued in many Arab cultures, and we were quite moved to find that even despite the war going on between America and Iraq, that hospitality was still expressed toward us, in a heartfelt and authentic way, by the Iraqi civilians we met. The individuals we met did not pre-judge us based simply on the fact that we are American; they treated us as human beings first.

After 25 years under Saddam, it seemed that there was a pervasive and visceral understanding, on the part of Iraqi civilians, that there is a significant difference between the policies of a government and the people of a country. This was enormously moving and instructive to us, and we realized that the simple act of speaking to each other, Iraqi civilian to American civilian, was an important part of the play.

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Before the war, Iraq was a largely middle-class and secular country. We met many, many women who'd had high-powered careers as engineers, scientists, working for NGOs and the like. We met artists, doctors, scientists, journalists, etc. There was not nearly as much of a cultural gulf between the lifestyles of Iraqis and the lifestyles of Americans as the mainstream media would have us believe.

In "Aftermath," you let the refugees speak for themselves. Was that a risky choice?

It was the only choice. This kind of documentary theater work, to us, is about the subjects telling their stories in their own words. Our job is to shape the material, to give it dramatic structure, to turn conversation into dialogue and interview material into a play. But these are not our stories. They are the stories of the Iraqi civilians who we spoke with, and our trying to insert ourselves into the material would have seriously undercut the very nature of the work.

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The play contains a translator character, who is a composite of several different translators we worked with in Jordan (the other characters are not composites and are direct representations of individuals we met). We allowed ourselves slightly more dramatic license with the translator, simply because he was a composite and serves as the bridge between the audience and the other characters, but he speaks for himself as well--about the experience of being a translator in Iraq and the particular struggles associated with trying to bridge two worlds-- and is not a mouthpiece for our point of view.

Some people might see it as risky to give voice to Iraqis in their own words, since there is cultural pressure on us as Americans to see them as "other," dangerous, alien--but we don't see it that way. We connected with each individual Iraqi we met on a deep and human level and believe that when American audiences hear them speak for themselves, they will connect with those stories on a human level as well.

You consciously chose actors of Middle Eastern background for this play. Why was that so important to you ?

For several reasons. First of all, we realized as we went through the interviews and the multiple steps of translation involved in the process, that translation itself was an integral part of what the play was about. So much of the chaos that's gone on in Iraq has to do with failures of translation; the failure to reach across the linguistic and cultural gulfs between our two cultures. In order to deal with the question of translation in the play, that meant the script needed to contain some Arabic. So first of all, we needed actors who had some facility with the Arabic language.

Secondly, we believe that the trend of casting people of color fairly interchangeably--when the material is as culturally specific as this--is a fairly odious trend, one that glosses over real and meaningful geographic and cultural differences. South Asian cultures are not the same as Middle Eastern cultures are not the same as Latino cultures, and with material as culturally specific as this play,

it would be sloppy (not to mention problematic) of us to treat those cultures as equivalent or interchangeable. It would have been impossible to hire an entirely Iraqi-American cast--there aren't enough actors in New York City of Iraqi descent--but the fact that our cast all has family background from the basic geographic region enables them to bring a sense of cultural specificity, rhythm, language and gesture to the piece that we believe is an integral part of the play.

That makes perfect sense to me. You're enjoying back-to-back successes with "The Exonerated" and "Aftermath." Did your wild success with "The Exonerated" open doors for you this time? Or did it put more pressure on you to succeed?

When we're doing this kind of work, we try not to put any pressure on ourselves to "succeed" in the conventional sense--the stories that the piece tells are so much more important than any kind of illusory "career" type pressure we could put on ourselves. Our responsibility is to the stories and to the people we've interviewed, not to our own careers or to "success" in the professional world.

To our mind, we've succeeded if we've translated the powerful experience that we had hearing these stories in the interview room skillfully enough that our audiences can have a similar experience watching the play in the theater, and if we've faithfully communicated the personal stories of the people who appear in the play, as well as the larger story we heard in all the interviews that didn't make it into the final piece.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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