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"A Nation Deceived: A Work in Progress"

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Message Jayne Stahl
On the eve of Election Day, and one best characterized by the phrase "pinch me," I was invited to attend the staged reading of Craig Barnes' play "A Nation Deceived" at the Pacific Resident Theatre, in Venice, where I got to chat, for a few minutes, with actor, and activist Ed Asner, as well as playwright, Craig Barnes.

When I asked Ed, a 7 time Emmy winning actor, who has an inspired history of advocacy for progressive social change, why he decided to play Old Man in this performance, he said the play "is a beautiful indictment-a great amassing of a lot of information in the so-called liberal press." Long renowned as a vocal, and muscular opponent of U.S. policy in Central America, and Iraq, a great civil libertarian, a crusader to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as one who supports, and contributes to Fresh Start, a program to feed the homeless in Walnut Creek; Ed is no stranger to the struggle for truth and justice..

When asked if he thinks we can expect major change if Pelosi takes over as Speaker of the House, and if he thinks the theatre is empowered to act as a catalyst for much-needed congressional investigations into wrongdoing in Iraq, Ed responded "I don't think it's a play that's going to make Nancy Pelosi come around. The play may motivate people to make bodies of others that will then motivate certain committee chairmen of Congress; only through committee chair can we discover malfeasance and hopefully those committee chairs will energize Pelosi to conduct further investigations and possibly impeachment."

On the couch in the lobby where we sat, Craig nursed a tepid cup of coffee; "My goal is to remind people of the elegance of a society in which the law is above the king," he tells me. Barnes not only wrote "A Nation Deceived," which premiered in Santa Fe in late September, but directed it, and he plays Dick Cheney's lawyer, Samuel Pounder. A trial lawyer, an accomplished environmental law specialist, author, playwright and essayist, he was involved, for more than 13 years, in negotiations with the Soviet Union on issues of war and peace, the environment, and ethnic cleansing. Barnes even ran for Congress, back in 1970, as a Democratic candidate from Colorado.

His play, a self-described "draft," is a work in progress not unlike the concept of democracy itself. It is theatre with a clear-cut objective, which is for the viewer, or reader to share the play with others, as well as participate in re-creating it. One can think of few nights better than this, the night before an historic midterm election, to let one's imagination run wild, and entertain thoughts of what it might be like if Congress were to be in the hands of those folks who ask the hard questions, and are relentless in their pursuit of accountability. What better time, too, to think about what it might be like if the people were, once again, to own the government.

The theme of "A Nation Deceived," the story of a trial that takes place in the Court of Common Opinion, in which the defendants are President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who are tried as felons, and represented by their respective attorneys, Ranger, Pounder, and Chance is that government belongs to the people who "never rest." . The prosecutor, Old Man, a feisty, larger than life country lawyer, played passionately by Ed Asner, represents the will of the people in challenging the big gun Washington defense team.

While the entire play takes place in court. it is, as Barnes writes, "one step in a program to spread the arguments and information concerning the buildup to the war, its defenses, its contradictions, and its claimed necessity to the country at large." The trial is based on tangible, documented evidence which is part of the public record, and especially resonates in light of the recent announcement, by Agence France Presse , that the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with other "civic groups," has initiated a criminal complaint in Germany, this week, against U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and others, on charges of "war crimes in the context of a war on terror."

CCR is requesting that the German Federal Prosecutor do essentially as Old Man has, begin an inquiry, and ultimately criminally prosecute heads of state for conduct unbecoming rules of engagement during wartime. While there are major differences between a theatrical piece and the real life criminal complaint against Donald Rumsfeld, the resemblance is stunning in that, if nothing else, it shows that life and theatre often inhabit parallel universes ..

The world of "A Nation Deceived" has, as its nexus, the discovery of the "Black Gold Exhibit," a national security document, AKA "the Oil Exhibit," a list of 30 countries, excluding the U.S., lined up to benefit from Iraqi oil in the months before 9/11, thus "the motive" for the American invasion of Iraq.. Old Man argues: "If something was not done to remove Saddam Hussein from power every one of those 30 countries was in line ahead of the U.S. for the huge resources of Iraqi oil."

Ironically, but aptly, it is Bush's attorney, Ranger, who, in a fit of conscience, hands the Oil Exhibit, a key piece of evidence for the prosecution, over to Old Man who asks: "What did this war accomplish for democracy? Nothing. What did it accomplish for Halliburton? Well, it erased the 30 countries on the Black Gold list, that's what. And these three defendants (Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld) are now in charge of who gets that oil. No failure in Iraq for them. That is a completely successful result, if your purpose, all along, was only oil."

That the tenets and tenacity of these charges, and prosecution, are commonplace to the viewing audience today attests to the potency of the Internet with respect to instant news. That said, anyone who came to this performance expecting traditional theatre was in for a surprise. This piece is about as much like other courtroom dramas as Brigitte Bardot is like Edi Amin; it is not speculative, but exploratory in its insistence upon raising crucial, and compelling questions not only about the chicanery, and incompetence behind the buildup to war, but the culture of intellectual lassitude that went along for the ride. Moreover, among the play's conclusions is the prospect of yet another imminent pre-emptive strike, in Iran, based on the manufacture of selectively deceptive intelligence. So it is, then, that "A Nation Deceived" demands of us that we ask not only who lied, and why, but how we allowed ourselves to be duped; there is an odor not just of "mendacity" here, but of complicity.

Importantly, Barnes' attitude toward his work is not proprietary; he welcomes collaboration from the audience, and fellow performers. Sometimes, one feels as if he views history itself as his collaborator; sometimes, we agree, if it can be argued that history, too, takes place inside an imaginary courtroom.

When I asked Craig why he chose to write plays, he told me "Telling stories is more important as a catalyst for change than trying lawsuits." That said, "A Nation Deceived" is, in point of fact, about a lawyer, for the people, who acts as prosecutor against the key deciders in any wartime scenario, the president, vice president, and secretary of defense. The difference is that the courtroom, in question, is "The Court of Common Opinion," not a federal court, and that all proceeds from the these performances go towards spreading the discourse, and developing the Web site,, where one may also find the play.

Moreover, one of the principal virtues of "A Nation Deceived" is that it is protean, not something static and fixed; a project rather than a finished product. And, as such, it is more than a referendum on the legality of the Iraq war, but is an innovative, interactive approach to theatre. What's more, as should come as no surprise, the dialogue was authentic; the acting dynamic with stellar performances by Ed Asner, Craig Barnes, and Leith Burke.

"A Nation Deceived" may be seen as a dramatic investigation of prewar intelligence, an exploration of probative arguments, as well as an indictment of a judicial system that stacks government heavyweights against Everyman. But, in the final analysis, the play is a clever and conceptually compelling way to obviate the charge, however reasonable, that it is little more than an exercise in political didacticism. Instead, we, in the audience, get to look through a window at a system that is broken, yet still manages to offer up the specter of social justice in lieu of religious redemption.

On the long drive back to Ventura from Venice, I found myself thinking about what Ed Asner meant when he said that playing Old Man is one of his "geschrei (screams)," and how many more geschrei it may take before "a nation deceived" becomes a nation relieved.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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