As the world’s focus shifted to Iraq in 2003, much of the talk centered on what was about to enter the country: The American army, flanked by warriors from the “coalition of the willing,” dead-set to topple Saddam Hussein. But what the media failed to realize in the days, months and years following the leader’s execution–and the violence that came to define the power vacuum that followed–was that the more compelling human drama involved what was exiting Iraq. In the turbulent aftermath of the second Iraq War, millions of Iraqi citizens were forced to flee their homeland–displaced refugees that had to abandon their houses, families and the good bulk of their worldly possessions.
Aftermath, the new production now showing at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 4, is an attempt to tell their stories–to reconstruct the brutal conditions that compelled so many to give up all they knew. Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen traveled to Jordan in June of 2008, speaking with 37 displaced Iraqis about what forced them to flee Iraq. The L Magazine spoke with Blank, who also directed “Aftermath,” about her latest foray into documentary theater and what she learned about the war as she sat down with these dozens of strangers in their homes halfway around the world.
The L Magazine: The second Iraq War began six years ago; when did the idea for Aftermath first begin to germinate?
Jessica Blank: The initial seed was hatched two summers ago. I was developing a play for New York Theater Workshop at Dartmouth College and I started talking with artistic director Jim Nicola about how little work had been done in the contemporary theater about the two wars that America was currently involved in.
Why do you think that was–that these conflicts had yet to be fully addressed on the stage?
Well that’s a whole different conversation. This story, about the millions of Iraqis fleeing their country, hasn’t been a story that we’ve heard about extensively in the mainstream media, where I think there’s a great deal of censorship. There are war photographers in Jordan who talked about not being able to publish photos because they were deemed too graphic. I also think there’s a dearth of stories about civilians from these wars because there’s this sense that these are stories that Americans don’t want to hear. That’s just looking at the media; in the theater, I think it’s hard for American playwrights to think about how to write about the perspectives of Iraqis. It’s so different than our own–and you see a lot of plays instead that have explored the perspective of American soldiers, which is a lot easier for playwrights to conceive.
So you decided to travel overseas to get that foreign perspective…
In documentary theater, we’re working in an interview-based format. We don’t come up with the stories ourselves, but instead are going after telling stories that are hard to get. In terms of Aftermath, that challenge was compounded by the challenge that today there are massive Iraqi civilian populations in both Jordan and Syria, so where do you focus your attention? We were lucky enough to be able to work with a humanitarian organization, and to work with their network of translators and fixers to get around all the hurdles that confront you when you’re trying to get into these refugee communities. We received a grant from the Ford Foundation and over two weeks last June we spoke to 37 Iraqi civilian refugees, bringing back those interviews and working with translators to create word-for-word transcripts.