Photo by Valon Bajgoraj. Pictured: George Bartenieff (Handel) and Rebeka Qena (Tess)
We were fortunate to be awarded a Global Connections – On the Road travel grant to take my new play, Another Life, to Kosovo this past June because we already had performance dates in New York for the fall but had not had the opportunity to workshop the play with actors, other than several readings. Also, we were already in the midst of an international exchange with playwright Jeton Neziraj, who is Artistic Director of the National Theater of Kosovo, because his new play, “Demolition of the Eiffel Tower” was coming here in September. Both our plays, along with “The Domestic Crusaders” by Wajahat Ali, are scheduled as the centerpieces of the Art of Justice: 9/11 Performance Project, September 6-11, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Confounding the clichés, the 9/11 Performance Project presents a counter-narrative of the past 10 years with these three new plays, each one certain to provoke. I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s comment immediately after the September 11 attacks: “we can all mourn together but let’s not all become stupid together.” Two endless wars and one economic collapse and long recession later, her words, which earned her much criticism in the moment, seem prescient. The 9/11 Performance Project came into being because we wanted to create an artistic space where serious people could reflect upon the decade after the attacks. Each of the three plays, and they are all comic to a large extent, are also serious reckonings with the world as it has become since that fateful September day ten years ago. There is no better place for such a performance series than the GW Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. John Jay lost 68 alumni, faculty and staff on 9/11; and it is also home to the Center on Terrorism which will be hosting a day-long conference on Friday, Sept. 9, called After 9/11: Cultural, Personal and Historical responses. John Jay trains many of our uniformed firefighters, police officers and military. It was also my pleasure to work with thirteen John Jay students this summer to lead them in writing a play called “We Were Kids: 9/11 Stories” which will be part of the Performance Project, too. My own connection to 9/11, aside from having been in New York that day, began when I was able to use my training as an oral historian and trauma and human rights worker to become part of the September 11, 2001, Oral History and Memory Project at Columbia University. I interviewed 16 survivors and witness to the attacks, including military and fire-fighting personnel and Arab American and African American artists. I had not only my story, but many stories in my head.
Our On the Road grant allowed us to spend a full week in Kosovo rehearsing Another Life with English-speaking Kosovar actors, a wonderful team that Jeton put together, plus George Bartenieff, who traveled with me.
These five had all been refugees during the war, as children and teenagers; in fact, all the bright, energetic young who are now managing and running things share this history. They endured the war they did not cause. Now, they are also engaged in reconciliation, working across the national lines and bearing scant grudges but they suffer the loss of family, and of friends. These actors immediately understood Another Life; they know how war impacts human character. Another Life begins on September 11, 2001, and one of the central characters loses her fiancé on that day. He returns to her in various crucial moments of the play, as if in her dreams. The Kosovar actor, Artan Gecaj, who played the “ghost” Geoff had, himself, lost his best friend in a drive-by shooting during the war. He said she returned to him in his dreams for a full year following her death and many of the lines he had as Geoff were very close to lines she had said to him in his own dreams. Another of actors, Arijeta Ajeta, had an uncle who was tortured to death during the war. Another Life moves forward from the attacks on the United States to explore the torture program put into place by the Bush administration. For Arijeta, playing the physician, Lucia, who unwittingly becomes part of the torture of a detainee she is bound by Hippocratic Oath to protect, the story-line and inner conflict, was immediately clear. The Kosovar actors understood that no one comes through war unscathed.
Because they grasped the essence of the play so intuitively, we got a tremendous amount of work done—roughly staging the entire play, and for me, this was enormously important as I am hampered here by lack of funds and will be forced into a very short rehearsal period. As we worked, the actors’ became more and more committed, and more and more free. Surprisingly, the Kosovar actors felt that my play somehow represented their experiences during the war in a more meaningful way than other plays they had been in because my play allowed them to give voice to their own feelings in a way that other plays have not. I felt that the American focus on psychological truth and on individual psychology is a strength I have learned by virtue of being an American playwright, and a strength I brought to Eastern European actors who grabbed at it. I was enormously moved by their responses and by the collaborative working conditions we created together.
Without the week’s workshop in Kosovo, I would be far less prepared to mount Another Life with American actors for the 9/11 Performance Project. Another Life will be performed twice, Sept. 10 at 8 pm and 11th at 1:30 pm, followed by a talk-back with author Chris Hedges. On September 8th at 5pm, there will be a panel of lawyers who defend Guantanamo detainees, followed that evening at 7:30 by an invited dress rehearsal of Another Life. We have a fine American cast, headed by George Bartenieff, with Eunice Wong, Ariel Shafir, Omar Koury, Christen Clifford and Dorien Makhloghi.
Karen Malpede is a Playwright and co-founder Theater Three Collaborative.