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O My America: The Challenge of Political Theater

March 14, 2014
by Lawrence Bush I don’t often go to the theater. For some reason, I have a hard time being pulled into the “illusion” of staged performance (unlike with film, in which I can be totally absorbed); the false notes ring too loud, and my critical mind gets to working overtime. I’m not proud of this, and, in fact, I’m intent on making myself literate about theater the way I have with jazz, abstract art, and other realms of creative work that I largely ignored as an obtuse younger man. So I gave it a shot last night with Joel Shatzky’s The Baghdad Diaries, which is playing until March 22nd at the 13th Street Repertory Theater in New York. Shatzky, who writes regularly for Jewish Currents on education issues, has been on a creative tear: his comic novel, Option Three, was published last year by Blue Thread, our book imprint, and his collaboration with Leonard Lehrman and Helene Williams, SUPERSPY, was staged earlier this month. He’s the author of some fourteen books and numerous plays, and he knows how to tell a story. The Baghdad Diaries presents three excellent young actors delivering rotating monologues about the shattering of their lives by America’s — that is, George W. Bush’s — invasion of Iraq in 2003. One is Fatima (Misha Calvert), an Iraq Sunni woman who watches her country and her life fall apart; another is Leonora (Christine Sanders), an African American whose husband is killed as a Halliburton truck driver in Iraq, and whose teen son subsequently falls off the straight-and-narrow; and Sara-Jane (Kate Lydic), a Southern Christian conservative woman whose Marine husband comes home maimed and emotionally paralyzed by PTSD. Calvert_Misha_Home_Yellowsanders.c.91.jpg.500x500_q100_crop-scale_upscalephoto-1After nearly 90 minutes of their personal stories, I felt emotionally paralyzed myself. Not moved, not surprised, not educated, but paralyzed — and wondering, with that same critical mind that alienates me from most theater, about the challenges of creating successful art about appalling political realities. For me, The Baghdad Diaries doesn’t come close enough to success. With each character, I felt that I was enduring recitations of scenarios that I’ve seen many, many times before. In nearly half of the scenes, the women are weeping and raging. It’s almost embarrassing to watch emotional suffering that leads you nowhere but to the role of silent witness — particularly when you’re heard it all before. Heard it all before? Yes, even with Shatzky’s interesting narratives about faith, patriotism, marriage, and self-justification by the Christian conservative, who had the most surprising and best lines of the evening, I have heard it all before, because I hated the Iraqi war from the start, opposed it in the streets, read many, many articles about its terrible impact on Iraq and on America. I’m informed. Yet am I not the typical audience member at the 13th Street Repertory — New Yorkish, progressive, informed, caring about politics and about humanity? And shouldn’t the playwright be writing with such minds in mind, rather than pretending that his protest of the Iraq War is going to reach ears that have not heard such protests many times before? How many times have I sat through gut-wrenching political theater and thought, You’re preaching to the choir, man. Shatzky preaches better than some others, but doesn’t it behoove political artists to surprise me with what I don’t already know, so that my political and humanistic sensibility is somehow heightened? Often at political theater I feel as if I were in shul, enduring the same familiar liturgy. Some gain a sense of comfort and “belonging” from doing that, but I get bored. Bertolt Brecht described the audience reaction to what he called “dramatic” theater to be “I weep when they weep; I laugh when they laugh. . . . That’s great art, it seems the most obvious thing in the world.” Brecht counterposed this to his preference, “epic” theater or the theater of alienation, in which the audience thinks: “I laugh when they weep; I weep when they laugh. . . . That’s great art — nothing obvious about it.” Now, I’m still trying to wrap my head around theater that deliberately alienates, as Brecht sought to do, but The Baghdad Diaries is all-dramatic-all-the-time. I walked out thinking, If only those fine actors had at least moved from seat to seat, taken up each other’s roles in rotation — the African American becoming the Christian Conservative, the Christian Conservative becoming the Sunni, the Sunni becoming the African American — not only would their acting abilities been really tested and stretched (they were good, all three of them), but something new and interesting would have been happening to personal narratives that otherwise, in truth, I’ve read in the New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic, Harper’s, In These Times, Mother Jones, Jewish Currents . . . Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO.