Fear Up: Stories from Guantanamo and Baghdad
nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
August 11, 2006
As presented in the U.S. Army Field Manual, Fear Up ("exploiting a source's fears, real or imagined") is just one of 17 different methods of interrogation. As presented by the Democracy Cell Project, an online activist organization, Fear Up is an effective, humane piece of political theatre, its outrage leavened with humor and affection.
With a text culled from a variety of sources by Karen Bradley and Marietta Hedges, and then adapted to the stage by Joe Brady, the play presents a multi-ethnic ensemble of 10 talented actors portraying 20 characters, including prisoners, interrogators, military, and civilians. Most prominent, and most compelling, is the tale of the Tipton Three, Pakistani British citizens in their 20s who were traveling in Pakistan for a wedding on September 11, 2001, and who were arrested in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance shortly after. Although none of the men had any connection with any terrorist group, they were held incommunicado and subjected to almost unimaginable treatment, without due process or any of the protections provided by the Geneva Conventions, including the right to seek redress in federal courts. If we are already familiar with their story, told before in the play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Freedom and the film The Road to Guantanamo, that is scarcely the fault of the play; instead, it is a testament to the almost total blackout of information coming out of the prison. Interviews with the three given upon their eventual release have provided us with nearly all we know on the conditions of the Guantanamo prisoners, some of them, the play alleges, children as young as eight years old.
Counterposed to these three is a spirited trio of Iraqi women, whose speeches are taken from a "girl blog" written in Baghdad during the bombing and occupation. "You know what really bugs me about posting on the Internet?" asks one. "The first reaction—usually from Americans—is: You're lying, you're not Iraqi." Iraqis don't have computers, goes the argument; couldn't use them if they had them, don't speak English. She must be a liberal impostor. These sections crucially put a human voice to the abstractions of news reports about Iraqi civilians: Over 18 times as many civilians have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war than were killed on September 11.
Director Joe Brady has staged the play with variety and pace, and makes excellent use of the large performing space of Dance New Amsterdam, abetted by fine lighting and costume designs by David Bengali and Michele Reisch, respectively. There are times, however, when the play runs the risk of not following its own principles of giving full humanity to its characters: representatives of the American military, for example, are too often cartoon bigots, almost all of them having thick Southern accents (including, very oddly, Donald Rumsfeld), no doubt meant to connote ignorance and blind patriotism. A frightened military wife would be more affecting if she were not such a cliché of suffering, tremulously clutching a shawl around her shoulders. And, although Bradley and Hedges have provided an impressive variety of texts, I could not help but think that their portrayal of American depredations in Iraq would be better balanced with at least a bare mention of the atrocities of Saddam Hussein or the murderous antipathies of the Shiite and Sunni sects.
But these are rather minor quibbles. Fear Up is vital, provocative theatre. You should see it because it tells us that we should care about what our government is doing in our name, with our dollars, and because our government is all too happy to keep us in the dark. "I sometimes think," says a reporter in Fear Up, "that we've let them have their way without fierce enough protest." And so we have.