Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Protect Freedom

Timeline Theatre Company

London’s Tricycle Theatre, known for creating documentary plays from transcripts, commissioned a script about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2004. In just two months novelist Gillian Slovo and journalist Victoria Brittain interviewed two former detainees, a few family members of Britons still held captive, a handful of military and human rights attorneys, and a journalist whose sister died in the World Trade Center attack. The play opened a month after the interviews were completed.

Two years later the hasty creation of Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom compromises its value as theater, even in this handsome production by TimeLine. Lacking compelling human sagas or a provocative political point, it’s painted mostly in black and white, empathizing with the innocent and wagging fingers at the unjust.

Brittain and Slovo intercut interviews with more than a dozen people, devoting most of the first act to the detainees and their families. Most of the first 20 minutes goes to Mr. Begg, a Pakistani banker whose son Moazzam was held at Guantanamo (he was released in January 2005 without ever being charged). As a young boy, Mr. Begg says, Moazzam announced that he wanted to “make a society…to help older people, feeble people, and people with disabilities and all that.” Once he completed school, the devout Muslim went to Afghanistan to build schools and wells because he believed “the Afghan people are the people in the world who are most deprived.” But after American forces invaded, he was taken for Taliban and detained first at Bagram and then at Guantanamo, where he suffered many abuses.

It’s a horrifying story. But Mr. Begg’s description of Moazzam makes him seem more poster child than human being. Like most of the narratives in the play, this one is long on outrage but short on the details that might have brought Moazzam to life. Perhaps to compensate, director Nick Bowling puts Moazzam and two other detainees in a pit center stage where they remain all night–even through intermission–occasionally reading their letters home in escalating bouts of maudlin anguish. This cliched effort to make the prisoners more real backfires, making no allowance for the power of an audience’s imagination.

Brittain’s and Slovo’s interviewing skills may be the problem. They let their subjects ramble across the surface of their stories rather than steering them toward vivid, detailed accounts. British school administrator Jamal al-Harith–who went on a religious retreat to Pakistan, where first the Taliban, then the United States accused him of spying–spent two years at Guantanamo before being released. But his account is merely a blurry, episodic tale of personal fortitude in stark conditions amid intolerant guards. It doesn’t help that actor Sean Nix, like many cast members, simply announces the story, rarely providing the nuanced delivery of someone speaking from experience.

Although the play moves from the personal to the political, it has no genuine dramatic arc. Increasingly focused on attorneys working on behalf of the detainees, it provides little insight into the convoluted, quasi-legal system that perpetrates human rights abuses despite sustained scrutiny. Instead the attorneys deliver broad condemnations of the Bush and Blair administrations and their bias against Muslims. If we heard more of the evidence behind their points, they might carry some weight. We get only bald conclusions, however, that neatly divide the issue into good and bad–and the bad exists in what seems a distant world.

TimeLine’s thoughtful, unhurried staging divides the interviewees into two groups placed at either end of a long playing area. In Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set design, each actor is ensconced atop a small, well-appointed platform like an exhibit in a living museum: Mr. Begg sits in a tiny middle-class English living room. All of them look down into the holding cell where the prisoners languish. Mike Tutaj’s slick video interjections flash pictures of the interviewees and brief stats about them, swiftly reminding us of the real people behind the words. Director Bowling encourages his actors to deliver their lines slowly and carefully, which creates a few telling moments but more often drains the evening of momentum.

This feels like a play with an ax to grind rather than a truth to unveil. It’s a terrible thing to beat, chain, humiliate, and torture innocent people. But a script in which the detainees were in fact the cold-blooded killers Donald Rumsfeld describes would have had greater moral complexity. Also, Slovo and Brittain finger the politicians and military commanders who’ve created this international disgrace but never allude to the voting populace who let it continue. And now that Congress has appropriated funds to build a permanent prison at Guantanamo, we’ll have many more years to face the complicity these playwrights ignore.

When: Through 3/26: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Price: $15-$25

Info: 773-281-8463

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.