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New York, USA –Basima is a Chaldean victim of an accident that kills almost her entire family, including her husband and her newborn baby; she takes off her head scarf, revealing the burns on her face. She sits before an audience sharing her private hell and the suffering of the Iraqi people.
On the stage of the New York Theater Workshop creators, Erik Jenson (co-writer) and Jessica Blank (writer and director) share the personal tragedies of Iraqi citizens during the war. The play titled “Aftermath” in its final week of performance has earned impressive reviews as it depicts the private experiences of Iraqis. Including the hardest hit and most vulnerable among Iraqi citizens, Chaldeans. Leila Buck, plays a Chaldean dermatologist forced to treat the wounded against her will.
The play tries to show the war’s continual effect on ordinary Iraqis widely ignored by media coverage since a new president was elected in the United States. A voice-over during the play explains how over four million Iraqis remain refugees from their land.
From the stage a young attractive woman softly murmurs, “Most Americans don’t know what a bomb sounds like. You don’t feel your eardrums, from the sound. We also don’t know what it smells like after the bomb has hit the target.”
“You don’t get that from TV,” the translator adds.
The show’s creators, Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, are the same husband-and-wife team that put together “The Exonerated,” about real-life death row inmates who were innocent. Like their previous play, “Aftermath” is based on edited transcripts of interviews with the actual people being depicted; the actors tell their stories directly to the audience, mostly sitting on chairs on the stage.
The play actors include a theater director and his wife, the artist and scenic designer, who met at an arts institute in Bagdad and courted for six years; they would retreat to what colleagues called the Bermuda Triangle because it was a place where they could disappear and be alone together.
There is the translator, who learned English from American videogames and likes to tell the jokes that were going around Iraq, which were more revealing than any news report. (While there is a smattering of Arabic to lend a sense of authenticity, all the characters speak English.)
There is an imam, who as a teenager unsure of his beliefs helped become religious by reading a translation of a book demonstrating God’s existence in nature written by a group of American scientists.
A young woman in the head scarf named Basima, a Christian who recounts childhood Christmases with particular glee – are courteous and likeable.
It is more than a third of the way through the 85-minute play before we start to learn about their experiences after the Americans came in 2003. The imam was taken, based on a misunderstanding, to Abu Ghraib; the translator was kidnapped by Iraqi police; the dermatologist was forced to treat wound after wound after wound (“You know why I chose dermatology? I hate blood.”); the theater director and his wife were targets of fatwas against artists from insurgents flooding the country from Iran and Syria (“If there is a play that I could pick that embodies Iraq now…’King Lear’ because of all the betrayals.”)
These and the other stories are told in persuasive detail with compelling performances by all nine members of the cast, who make you forget not just that they spend most of their time sitting, but that these actors are not the actual people whose stories they are telling.
The playwrights spent two weeks in Jordan last year on assignment from the New York Theater Workshop interviewing Iraqi refugees.
The audience drawn to “Aftermath” will get what it paid for – audience members will learn a little, and feel a lot closer to understanding what a mess U.S. involvement in Iraq became…and remains. If that’s not enough, there is also a discussion session after each performance and literature in the back from groups like the International Rescue Committee