This Road is Forbidden. Let’s Go!

by Karen Malpede

in Global Connections

Post image for This Road is Forbidden. Let’s Go!

(Poster by Luba Lukova)
I’ve written a play that speaks truths no one wants to hear.  Truths we are not supposed to acknowledge.  Truths we are supposed to forget. Why, then, does this play, “Another Life” seem, after just one staged reading at the National Theater of Kosovo last June, funded by a TCG On the Road Travel Grant, and only three performances at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater last September, at the 9/11 Performance Project, to fulfill audiences so much that people wrote us checks immediately after seeing the play and many people told us we have to bring it back for a longer run?   We are managing to bring “Another Life” back for just three weeks, March 8-24, produced by Theater Three Collaborative at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, where it will be surrounded by A Festival of Conscience, more about that later.

We must assume that to speak of things off limits and out-of-bounds, to utter forbidden truths is a serious purpose of serious dramatic art. And that when the theater dares defy taboo, exhilaration remains after the story ends.

I’m making a rather large claim.  You’ll have to come see “Another Life” for yourself to know if I am right, and I’ve not yet told you just what the forbidden knowledge is.  That’s not entirely fair so let me state it here:  I propose “Another Life” will speak a truth that we all know yet cannot fully hold alone in our hearts; we need communal recognition of the facts, and they are this: our own terror made us do it. “After 9/11 we panicked,” says Richard Clark, former national security advisor.  Our leaders panicked and they broke the law. They played upon our panic, too.  They authorized torture; they began two debilitating and unnecessary wars.  The law of our land is still broken.  No one has been held accountable for the torture program, for authorizing the illegal invasion ofIraq, or for inflicting civilian deaths in Afghanistan.  And, I would hazard, panic still underlies much that the nation does.

Panic cannot be assuaged by shows of patriotism, or of force. Panic has to be faced.  We were afraid on 9/11 (the day the play begins); we acquiesced to rage and sought revenge.  Bombings and invasions, torture and unmanned drones, a wild flurry of spending, laissez-faire deregulation of the financial markets, a housing bubble that had to crash, all this wanton violence and economic mismanagement flooded from the collective panic we dared not admit.  This year, the Occupy movement sounded the social alarm that says the same.  How do we reclaim our sanity and selves?

Photo: Ari Mintz. Pictured: George Bartenieff as Handel

“Another Life” begins with a long monologue.  An old man is speaking in dense stream-of-consciousness prose.  Slowly, it dawns that he is reliving the story of his life, and slowly, too, we realize he’s telling his tale in response to something, an explosion, that has happened outside.  The story of his life, moreover, is an iconic version of the immigrant son, that particularly American story of deprivation, public education and entrepreneurial success.  This man, Handel, represents a cherished myth we have about our nation and ourselves.  He picks himself up.  He begins again. And each new beginning brings him greater power and wealth.

Into the closed world of Handel’s self-affirming monologue, reality bursts in the form of his wife, a photographer, covered in the gluey gray-white dust the Towers made when they fell.  She is a spectral sculpture moving into his line of vision, jarring his mind.  Then comes his daughter, an emergency room physician, dressed still in her scrubs, carried in the arms of an Arab livery cab driver who found her in shock on the street.  And the voice, by cell phone message, of her lover, one of those who jumped.  So, the microcosm is nearly complete. This part of the play has been published in The Kenyon Review, called “stinging and satirical”.  In a few scenes a young, idealistic man will enter; he wants to protect his country, and he wants to try to do what is right.  Each character’s life has been utterly changed by 9/11 and each character has serious moral choices to make.

We lean forward to embrace.  Increasingly, these characters are neither innocent nor guilty, but innocent and guilty, both. We watch how the old man grabs at the chance for power, founding his own private contracting firm, becoming maniacal in his quest for more.  We see how the young are compromised by becoming players in his game, their moral fiber shredded as they try to do what their country asks, and we watch how they fight to hold onto something about themselves they feel is right.

Journalist Mark Danner names this history we share “Our State of Exception” and he says “torture in America has metamorphosed.  Before the War on Terror, official torture was illegal and anathema; today it is a policy choice.”

Is “Another Life” about torture, then?  Yes, and there is one startling scene, based completely on fact, that may stand your hair on end.  But the play is not about showing torture; it’s not about titillating with displays of faux-depravity on stage.  There are stories told in “Another Life” few Americans have heard:  one is the testimony of an innocent Iraqi man grabbed from his own house at night by private contractors and the military, held for months and tortured daily.  It’s one of hundreds of such testimonies collected by a lawyer, Susan Burke, who attempted to sue the private contracting firms in a court of law.  But the Supreme Court refused the case.  The testimony the Supreme Court was afraid to admit into evidence is in “Another Life.”  So, realities are shown in the play that remain off-limits to our courts of law and therefore to our ability to become, once more, a nation of law.

All this is shown in the play.  But what is experienced is something more.

"Handel's end" video graphics and photo by Luba Lukova.

And this is the purpose of placing forbidden knowledge on the stage:  we recoil yet can not tear our eyes away; we denounce the evil doers yet recognize the impulse in ourselves; we anathemize and still embrace. If and when a play works it’s these contradictory motions that hold its audience in place, riveted and made wiser.

At the first performance of the play in Kosovo, one of the actresses said, “thank you for giving us the hope that people might change.”  It was not until weeks later that she dared to write to tell me that her uncle had been put to death by torture during the Kosovo war.

“Another Life” will be surrounded by a Festival of Conscience because this play has become a magnet for Guantanamo lawyers, for writers about torture and its effects, and for defenders of the rule of the law.  These principled people have been toiling for ten years, more or less alone, making solitary trips to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other prisons, taking testimonies from detainees;  interviewing soldiers, viewing first-hand the effects of torture, and of torturing, on living human beings.   At the Festival of Conscience during the three-week run of this play, audiences will be able to talk with these experts, so that none of us will feel quite so alone.

“Another Life” casts light upon our violent out-bursts.  This is catharsis:  A communal passing through fear and terror, arrival at pity and compassion for ourselves and others, resulting in a collective lightness of being, the exhilaration audiences have experienced at this play.  This is what Theater Three Collaborative’s production of “Another Life” promises.  And a strengthening of the social will that torture end.

Karen Malpede is author of 16 plays, including, most recently, Prophecy, published in Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays; produced in London and New York. She is co-founder, with George Bartenieff, of Theater Three Collaborative and frequently directs her own work. She is an adjunct professor of theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she co-created the 9/11 Performance Project last fall. Another Life, opens at Irondale, March 8.

The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.