Plays with political themes have long
been a staple on stages around the world. Aeschylus'
"Persians," written in the 5th century B.C.,
is thought to be the earliest example of political satire.
Shakespeare was fascinated by politics and wove it into
many time-honored classics ("Henry V" and
"Richard III"). Bertolt Brecht integrated
economics and politics into his plays, including "The
Threepenny Opera" and "Mother Courage and
While more current playwrights such
as Tony Kushner ("Homebody/Kabul") and David
Hare ("Stuff Happens") have stuck to the usual
technique of adding artistic license to current events,
a slew of new playwrights have drawn word-for-word inspiration
directly from transcripts of trials and interviews and
created a modern brand of docudrama.
Several of these plays dealing with
hot-button issues -- Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's
"The Exonerated," Michael Murphy's "Sin:
A Cardinal Deposed," and Jeffrey Bruner's "Katrina:
State of Emergency," -- have been presented on
Now theatergoers can add to this list
"Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,"
Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain's documentary play
that revolves around interviews with the families of
young Muslim men, all British citizens, who were arrested
in Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and 2002
and transferred to detention camps at the U.S. Naval
Base at Guantanamo, Cuba, where they were held in a
legal black hole.
"Guantanamo" makes its Chicago
debut at TimeLine Theatre, a company whose mission is
staging plays that examine different aspects of history.
The more current nature of this play offers a new perspective
for TimeLine, says artistic director PJ Powers.
"What interested me was that
this play wasn't meant to be a '60 Minutes' piece exposing
things at Guantanamo," Powers said. "Nor is
it a political rant. What this play does is go to the
source and put a human face on the situation."
"Guantanamo" was commissioned
by Nicolas Kent, the politically minded artistic director
of London's Tricycle Theatre. The company had already
produced several plays based on transcripts of inquires
or tribunals such as the Nuremberg Trial and the Bloody
Sunday inquiry. The new play would approach the material
in the same way the only difference being the playwrights
would gather the raw material themselves.
Kent felt the writers were a good
fit; both have long been involved with political issues.
Slovo, a novelist, is the daughter of Joe Slovo, who
was an adviser to activist Nelson Mandela during the
anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and Ruth First,
who was killed in a 1982 bombing widely believed to
be the work of the South African police. Brittain, a
journalist, has reported on human rights issues from
many parts of the Third World. For 20 years, she was
on the staff of the Guardian and is now a research associate
at the London School of Economics.
"It was an idea that really appealed
to us," Slovo said, from her London home. "We're
both very comfortable writing about periods of great
change mired in world politics."
Before they began the interviews,
Slovo and Brittain read everything available about British
citizens held at Guantanamo, and the unusual predicament
their families faced. For advice in contacting specific
families, they sought help from lawyers, members of
Parliament and actor Corin Redgrave, one of the "lone
voices" who had been offering the families support.
The playwrights traveled from London
to Manchester, Birmingham, Tipton and Leeds, meeting
families originally from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Iraq, Jordan,
Pakistan and Bangladesh. At the time, the situation
was very tense, and the families felt the media was
against them. They had been receiving a lot of attention,
not all of it good, and had reason to be suspicious
of strangers knocking at the door.
"We wanted to be very uninvasive,"
Brittain said. "We didn't want to ask questions
but just wanted them to say what was on their minds.
I think the connection with the theater helped people
The most compelling interview was
with Azmat Begg, a retired banker and father of internee
Moazzam Begg. An Indian immigrant from a military family,
Begg becomes the backbone of the play. While Begg had
campaigned relentlessly for his son's release, others
told their stories for the first time.
"One day they were getting on
with their normal lives and suddenly their sons are
in a place they didn't even know existed," Slovo
said. "It was a moving experience to listen to
About halfway through the interviews,
five of the British detainees were released from Guantanamo.
Slovo and Brittain were able to connect with one of
the men, Jamal Al-Harith, who had spent two years at
the camp in Cuba. "Jamal's story is one of being
in the wrong place at the wrong time," said a still
incredulous Slovo. "He was catapulted into this
nightmare where there was nothing he or his family could
do to change the situation."
Throughout the process, Slovo and
Brittain worked with a growing sense of disbelief at
what was being done in the name of the war on terror.
Today, all the British citizens have been released from
Guantanamo. The playwrights suspect the British government
pressured the American government for proof of guilt;
when none existed, the British citizens were released.
To this day, no reasons were ever given about why they
'Guantanamo" debuted at the Tricycle
Theatre in spring 2004 and eventually moved to London's
West End, the local version of Broadway. It has since
been staged in New York and Washington, D.C, as well
as diverse locations such as Sweden, Italy and a boys'
school in Pakistan.
Slovo and Brittain continue to be
surprised at its success.
"We thought it would be an interesting
play that would have its three week run at Tricycle
and then it would be over like most plays are,"
Slovo said. "I think the interest is partly due
to the incredible amount of interest there is in the
issue of Guantanamo, but I think it's also because the
play really works on a dramatic level because these
stories are so incredible."
Both playwrights also feel part of
the play's success is the fact that the immediacy of
"Guantanamo" has not worn off. More than 500
prisoners are still being held at Guantanamo, most for
three years or more without charge under the U.S. government
designation of "unlawful combatant."
"While we were writing the play,
the British residents were released, and we had a discussion
about whether we were going to continue," recalled
Slovo. "We thought this would soon be a dead news
story. But two years later, it's pretty astonishing
that not much has changed at Guantanamo."
Added Brittain: "We now know
that American lawyers are working very hard to create
an awareness of what is continuing to happen at Guantanamo.
We now know to what lengths the American military and
the White House are determined to go to prevent due
process. But we also know that these detainees are probably
never going to see their day in court."