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. In the end, though, you don’t have 37 characters on the stage. How do you go about refining all this content down to something that’s manageable and engaging in a theatrical setting?
That process is extremely difficult. Each person we spoke with, tragically, had a story that was equally compelling. Given the scope of what happened to their country, every regular Iraqi has lived through some pretty unimaginable things. We worked with actors from the very beginning, who read through the initial transcripts while we listened. And as you listen to the actor’s voices, it jumps out at you, what’s the most compelling part of their story. So we want back up to Dartmouth last summer and we narrowed it down; we cut the number of stories in half by the time actors got there and we realized when you’re dealing with a show that’s 90 minutes long, it can probably hold six stories maximum and that was our goal. The way we work is that you take the raw transcript and edit by ear in the room, as the actor recites the lines, making notes that you type up each night. Then you have a slightly condensed interview the next day, and you do that over and over again until you finally have a powerful, condensed monologue, with a structure that emerged naturally.
Hearing all these stories on the stage, as they overlap and interconnect with one another, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer scope of this story, at how many different shades of pain and anxiety are present. What surprised you most as you first heard all these stories overseas? Was there one thing that stood out most, as running counter to your expectations?
One of the things that surprised us most was how profoundly welcoming everyone was. We were really prepared for anything–if people had been angry with us, or overly cautious because we were a couple of Americans coming into their homes to hear about the most painful things that ever happened to them, we would have understood. But what we found was the total opposite. Here are these people, who have had to flee with almost nothing, and yet they would offer you tea and coffee and the last box of cookies in their house. After 25 years of living under Saddam, there seemed to be this widespread understanding that there’s a disconnect between the government of a country and its policies, and its people.
The flip side to their willingness to deal with us was our realization that our fates are now intertwined. I think there’s this temptation, at least among us New York liberal types, to say "Okay, we’ll turn the page with a new administration, and that was 2003 and a long time ago and the troops are going home." But it’s not that long ago. It’s very seductive for Americans to say that this is over and let’s put it behind us, but we were in Jordan speaking to refugees just last summer and their country is not safe. They can’t go home. These are people who desperately love their country and want to go home, but they can’t. And that had an impact on us. The reverberations of what happened during the war will be felt for generations and generations, and that became one of the central themes of the play: If we don’t feel a responsibility to them on a humanitarian level, then we should feel a responsibility on the level of a serious threat to our national security. This is a situation that is not going to go away, and there are millions looking to us to see what we’re going to do next. It’s something we must deal with.