The brilliant, devastating moments in “Aftermath”, the new play by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank just opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, don’t strike you all at once. Rather, the details from the daily lives of Iraqi civilian-refugees since the beginning of the war that ravaged their country accumulate slowly and deftly, in words drawn almost entirely from interviews conducted by the playwrights. The proud Shia man who refused to ‘inform’ on his Sunni neighbors who helped him build his house with their own hands. The Baghdad imam, later tortured at Abu Ghraib, who first converted to Islam in the 70s through a book written by American authors giving the scientific evidence for God. (“Some mistakes,” he says of that prison’s horrific place in history, “go beyond an apology.”) The cocky dermatologist who at first provides much of the intense production’s comic relief tells of being trapped in his hospital for 10 days after the invasion, trying to perform whatever surgery he could while operating on no sleep and constant fear.
With subject matter like this, you can sit in the audience and practically hear the myths being busted as the actors speak. Even among the highly-informed, well-meaning crowd drawn to the East Village on a Sunday night to see a true play about the Iraqi war, our lack of knowledge about the daily life of those whom our national policy have turned into refugees is palpable. A veiled woman speaks about decorating her Christmas tree and you can hear the audience’s puzzlement. (As her story unfolds, so does the veil.) An endearingly earnest theatre director talks about how before the invasion, the imams at the local mosque supported what they did, as a way to “enlighten the people.” Over and over, characters explain that the difference between Sunni and Shia used to be so nominal as to be inconsequential, that despite the horrors of Saddam, people were not walking around in gray suits looking morose–“We’re not Russians, we’re Iraqis!”, and that in the beginning, before things went bad, people wanted to reach out to the Americans.
“Aftermath”is interview-based theater gone way beyond talking heads. What could have been a broad survey of pathos encompassing the many, many stories of Iraqi suffering, was instead bravely focused on a small group of characters, lovingly portrayed by an amazing cast of Arab-American actors, their stories intercut with one other and bridged by the revelatory addition of a composite translator character, who could address all of the characters and the audience directly. The most remarkable aspect of this play is that despite its unflinching depiction of the horrors of war, the play still manages to invite you into this world, embodying the legendary tradition of Arab and Iraqi hospitality that the interviewees showed to the playwrights.