The detainees were rounded up in the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, imprisoned often on the flimsiest of evidence, sometimes shipped to interrogations in foreign countries less squeamish about torture than we are (or used to be), and denied the speedy public trial before an impartial jury demanded by our Constitution. The detainees, even those whom no rational person would regard as having anything to do with terrorism, are being handled in a manner that flouts the American notion of justice and international conventions.
If news coverage of this situation has not moved you to question our government's opportunistic compromise of basic human and civil rights during the War on Terrorism, then the new play produced by Borderlands Theater will. Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (the ironic subtitle is taken from a sign at the military base) is less a conventional play than a docudrama, in the manner of The Laramie Project. This newish genre is sometimes called "theater of testimony" or "verbatim theater"; it's based on interviews and various documents, and rather than create a through-plot with interacting characters, it presents individuals telling their versions of events, their remarks intercut in the style of a video documentary.
The first act of Guantánamo, written by journalist Victoria Brittain and novelist Gillian Slovo, focuses primarily on three speakers: Iranian-British entrepreneur Wahab al-Rawi (played by Guillermo Francisco-Raphael Jones), who was arrested with his brother, Bisher, and staff during a legitimate business trip to Gambia; Mr. Begg (Ron Richards), an upright British citizen whose son Moazzam was picked up in Pakistan after fleeing the bombing in Afghanistan, where he was helping the locals build water pumps; and Jamal al-Harith (Victor Bowleg), a religious tourist in the odd position of having been arrested by the Taliban, released, then arrested by coalition forces.
The second act moves these figures to the background, literally, and allows us to hear more from Bisher (Kerem Beygo), Moazzam (Timothy Koch), another prisoner, and various English and American figures working on the prisoners' behalf, not to mention U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld (played with humor and smugness by Bill Epstein).
The situations of these particular prisoners are infuriating. It seems that Bisher al-Rawi was a suspicious figure because he was athletic, participated in such terrorism-related sports as scuba and skydiving, and was found in possession of a suspicious electronic device that turned out to be a battery charger. (In an irony worthy of fiction, the al-Rawi brothers were initially housed in a Gambian prison built with their own confiscated construction materials.) Another detainee was ultimately released with severe eye damage because he was forced to go two years without wearing his corrective contact lenses.
Even a straight-arrow American military lawyer assigned to defend detainees is dismayed by the highly irregular procedures he must contend with. "The system cannot be controlled," he finally declares, "by people with a vested interest in conviction."
Lest you dismiss this as a lot of bleeding-heart hand-wringing over many people possibly, perhaps even probably, guilty of some terrorist-related offense, the playwrights do include one character (touchingly portrayed by Brian Wees) who eulogizes his sister, killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, who states that he'd be quite satisfied to lock up the guilty parties and throw away the key. What nags him, though, is the likelihood that not all the detainees are guilty, and there's been little progress in sorting them out. "Why have they been detained so long?" one character asks. "Those who are innocent have lost three years of their lives."
Guantánamo premiered 11 months ago in London; since then, Britain has exerted its influence to have its four citizen-detainees depicted here released. Many others remain in Guantánamo limbo. On the Borderlands stage, we see three of them on their cots from the moment we arrive until our own departure from the theater. They read; they write letters; they pray; they do nothing but wait, and wait. To each side of the stage is a cage, each holding a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit; after intermission, the one on the right squats bound and blindfolded, his ears covered with noise-cancellation headphones. His isolation is an extreme illustration of how far removed all the detainees are from civil society and fair legal treatment.
As directed by Barclay Goldsmith, the large cast turns in fine performances. Among the most notable are Jones as Wahab al-Rawi, intelligent, collected, indignant; and Richards as Mr. Begg, a devoted father and good citizen who can't understand how this could have befallen his son. Whoever may be guilty or innocent at Guantánamo, any right-thinking person on the outside should agree with Begg's final statement: "I'm not asking mercy. I'm asking justice. Human rights justice."