Friday, October 29, 2010

They say history is written by the victors, so of course pop culture is, too. And our pop culture has been telling us some strange things of late; since the Iraq War, we've not only seen a hit TV show about a torture-lovin', terrorist-bustin' secret agent (24), but another hit "comedy" about a serial killer, Dexter (who of course only kills other serial killers), as well as a mammoth movie franchise, Saw, in which a brilliant mastermind viciously torments people - at one remove - for their own good.

Sense a pattern? Well, if you don't, I do; pop has shown us precisely what we've been up to the last few years - and even why, precisely, we tell ourselves we're doing it.  Only it processes this self-awareness into a perverse, congratulatory triumphalism that always lets us off the moral hook.  After all, we're the victors - right?

But Aftermath (above), at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only, is not a piece of pop culture.  So this time, there's just the news about ourselves, plain and simple, with no ironic, winking spin from Fox.  Instead there are only the words (drawn from direct interviews in Jordan) of a handful of Iraqis - from among millions - "displaced" by the war.  They speak to us, as they did to their interviewers, Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, as hosts - albeit hosts who are heart-breakingly eager to tell their stories, to have someone, anyone, pay some attention to their plight.  And thus they  don't really accuse us; indeed, they rarely raise their voices - they even manage some sad jokes about their situation.  But then, they don't have to raise their voices: what they have to say would be devastating even at a whisper.

Among them are cooks, and pharmacists, and artists, along with an imam, and even a hot-shot dermatologist.  All of them share one thing, however: they hated Saddam.  But they had learned to live their lives around his cruelty; they "knew where the red lines were," one explains.  "We had some space."

That is, until the sky people (that would be us) decided they cared above all about bringing democracy to tyrannies - but not Wal*Mart suppliers like communist China, rather desolate dictatorships (without air forces), sitting atop large oil fields, that we could crush without instituting a draft.  And as a result, these people's lives fell apart.  The litany of Aftermath is a grim one - the shrapnel still lodged in an eye, the nephew gunned down before his mother, the imprisonment in Abu Ghraib, the son left for dead in the garbage dump - but it only occasionally lapses into political pronouncement.  Instead, there's a dazed sense of question in the air, a palpable sense of the unbelievability of the whole disaster; "Why did you kill my nephew?" one man asks us.  "Who was responsible - and for what reason??"

If you find yourself squirming at such a question - because, of course, the answer is "We're responsible - we killed your nephew because we were looking for vengeance for 9/11!" - then maybe there's some hope for you, and perhaps for the whole situation.  Maybe.  But I have to point out a key flaw in Aftermath: although it raises a terribly pointed political question, it offers not even a glimpse of how it might be answered.  Many of us sky people always opposed the Iraq War, but as we survey the ensuing human wreckage, we simply don't see a way forward.  And nobody in Aftermath, does either.  It may be that there's no solution possible, and that all we can do is bear witness to the suffering we've caused.  Certainly that alone is a legitimate cultural endeavor - although given that gap, skeptics may wonder whether this piece of "verbatim theatre" counts as a legitimate form of "art."  The performances here are all grippingly subtle, but have Jensen and Blank shaped the material as convincingly as they could?  Frankly, I'm not sure.  But if Aftermath isn't a work of art, at least it feels like a small step toward a work of art; and maybe that's all we have.

And we need that art, because it's unlikely we've seen the full aftermath of "Shock and Awe."  There's one moment in the performance in which the veil of hospitality drops, or is torn open, when the imam who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib at last raises his voice (in the evening's most powerful performance, by Ted Sod), and predicts that we will pay for all this - or rather that our children will.  His jeremiad is immediately withdrawn, his anger extinguished, and apologies made, of course; our translator (the gently sly Fajer al-Kaisi) papers things over.  But history has a way of proving such predictions true; if 9/11 was our thank-you for decades of interfering with Saudi politics, then one can only imagine what kind of fall-out lies ahead for us.

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