In recent years, as playwrights look
for alternate ways to address political and social ills,
documentary works of theater--which use the actual words
of the people it portrays, as opposed to dialogue and
situations from the author--are increasingly prevalent.
Next month, TimeLine Theatre presents
the local premiere of "Guantanamo: Honor Bound
to Defend Freedom," a series of first-person accounts
of Muslim men--all British citizens or British residents--who
had no connections to terrorism, but were nonetheless
detained for extended periods as enemy combatants at
the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba by the United States.
And through the end of January, Bailiwick Repertory
is staging "Katrina: State of Emergency" about
recent events on the Gulf Coast.
They're two of several such productions
put on or that have visited Chicago in recent years.
"Guantanamo" was compiled
by the British novelist Gillian Slovo and journalist
Victoria Brittain, an editor and foreign correspondent
for The Guardian newspaper before embarking on the project.
The show, which also includes the reactions of stunned
family members back in England, first debuted in London
to strong critical acclaim in June 2004.
One of the stories recounted is of
Jamal al-Harith, who was arrested during his travels
"I went from Manchester to Pakistan
and ended up in Guantanamo, can you believe it?"
he told his interviewers. "Yes I went to Pakistan,
well if that's my crime then you'll have to arrest plane
loads of people. ... But I didn't actually get there."
al-Harith was initially captured by the Taliban--who
imprisoned him in Afghanistan believing he was a British
spy. He was eventually released, only to be detained
once again by British and American officials on the
suspicion that he was a terrorist.
Of the documentary approach, Slovo
says, "The authenticity of these modest people
living in an extraordinary situation is, I think, what
gives the play its tremendous power. It is a snapshot
of the families at this moment in their lives, and their
take on what has happened. What we had read or thought
we knew was nothing compared to the real experience"
described by those the playwrights spoke with. "Not
knowing when, or if, they were going to be released
was a kind of torture."
The piece was commissioned by London's
Tricycle Theater, a well-regarded company that specializes
in "tribunal" plays--topical works based on
interviews and court transcripts. "The rule,"
says Slovo, "is you're not allowed to create any
of the words, and have to be completely faithful to
the thing you're representing."
In short, real life accounts can be
just as compelling as those manufactured by a playwright.
A few years ago, a national-touring
production of "The Exonerated" used a variation
on the tribunal method to present stories of death row
inmates whose wrongful convictions were overturned.
And last year, Bailiwick debuted "Sin: A Cardinal
Deposed," a compelling look at the charges of child
molestation against the Boston Archdiocese and Cardinal
Bernard F. Law's staunchly obtuse deposition statements.
"Katrina," its current show,
is by Jeffrey Bruner, a film and theater critic for
the Des Moines Register. Bruner assembled the script
from sources that included blogs, Web sites, and newspapers,
as well as television and radio broadcasts in an effort
to depict that infamous one-week span when it seemed
as though help for the Gulf Coast would never arrive.
"I thought true stories would
be far more powerful than anything that could come from
a playwright's mind," he says. "I wanted to
capture a true representation of what was going at that
time, that week. Even if you think you know what happened,
you don't know what happened."
That's probably right, though unlike
the stories of those imprisoned at Guantanamo, the tale
of woe that engulfed New Orleans was--and still is--a
major news story. Even those with only a casual interest
in news are aware of the vast sea of ineptitude, destruction
and suffering that resulted after the hurricane.
But the documentary method--in this
case, anyway--failed to offer new insight on the story.
As staged here--with its dutiful depiction of a frustrated
Anderson Cooper going off on Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)--the
play feels like a re-enactment, rather than a complex
work of art that exposes its audience to unforeseen
layers of meaning.
This is the biggest hurdle for documentary
plays, but it's not hard to understand the genre's appeal.
We, as a culture, put a lot of stock in the truth, which
has increasingly become "the truth." Last
week, revelations came to light that author James Frey
exaggerated his past in his best-selling, Oprah-endorsed
memoir about drug addiction, "A Million Little
The truth these days is enigmatic
and apparently subject to change. Stephen Colbert called
this phenomenon "truthiness," in the best
non-joke joke of his tenure so far on Comedy Central's
"The Colbert Report." Can you blame a playwright
who sidesteps this morass altogether and chooses instead
to let the real words of real people speak for themselves?
Slovo sees another benefit, particularly
when the material is serious-minded.
"There is a cliche that the truth
is stranger than fiction, and often that is so true,"
she says. "To fictionalize the play would have
deprived it of its power, deprived it of the fact that
this is fact. I don't think you could have made up something
quite as bizarre as what these people have been through.