by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / May 2005 issue of Socialist Action
“Guantanamo Bay: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” is based on the lives of real prisoners in the U.S. concentration camp in Cuba. The play, written by
Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, opened to acclaim a year ago in London and in New York and had its San Francisco premiere at Brava Theater Center in March. The San Francisco production opened with actor Danny Glover, as senior British Law Lord Justice Steyn, reading from a lecture that Steyn delivered in 2003. He made it clear that the prisoners at Guantanamo are
held in a legal black hole by a government that attempts to excuse the practice as necessary in times of war.
“Often,” Steyn noted, “the loss of liberty is permanent.” He explained that “at present we are not meant to know what is happening there.”
The set, designed by Miriam Buether for this dramatic yet static play, was made up of several six-by-eight foot, institutional-green, wooden cells, covered with chicken wire. It struck me as being antiseptic and clinical compared to photos of the prisons at both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib that we see in the media and in documentary films.
The play’s action began with the call to prayer. Prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits (played by actors who appeared incongruously robust and clean) huddled in cells on steel “beds.” Some kneeled on prayer rugs or sat on the steel slabs, reading from a U.S. military-supplied Koran.
Actors playing family members and prisoners simply stood or sat, facing the audience as they talked about their lives before and experiences since they or their relatives had disappeared and ended up in Guantanamo Bay prison. A father, Mr. Begg (Harsh Nayyar) read his sons’ letters, some smuggled out and others heavily censored.
Attorneys related the circumstances behind their client’s arrest, like merely owning a mobile radio or praying in his store with the blinds down. They spoke
of their frustrations in trying to get justice for their clients.
“Guantanamo” basically dealt with the fate of nine prisoners, all British, five of whom, after two years of imprisonment without charges, have been returned to
the U.K. One of the five, Jamal al-Harith (Dion Graham), who had been picked up in Afghanistan, said upon his release that he wondered why he was freed
while others, just as innocent, weren’t.
Al-Harith spoke of once being stripped down and forced into a refrigerator-like steel box with no food or water, and no blanket, for refusing to wear a wrist
band. He was kept there for a time determined solely on a guard’s whim.
The story is told of two brothers. One, Wahab al-Rawi (Ramsey Faragallah), was an entrepreneur trying to start a peanut processing business in Gambia, “where the peanuts are.” He was eventually picked up, hooded and handcuffed, and sent to Baghram prison in Afghanistan and later to Guantanamo. The other brother was the mentally ill Bisher al-Rawi, (Ramiz Monsef). Their father, Mr. Begg, read Bisher’s heartbreakingly
The play also looked at the side of prosecutors. One Marine prosecutor talked of being frustrated about doing his job: “There are no guidelines, no fines, no
due process.” In the two years from 2001 to 2003, there were over 30 reported suicides. Later, there were a few—then, none. One attorney stated that the
reason was that suicide had been reclassified as “manipulative self-injurious acts.”
Donald Rumsfeld (Robert Langdon Lloyd) showed up a couple of times to explain U.S. policy at press conferences in his usual jabberwocky: “… prisoners of war, which these people are not, and—in our view—but there—and, you know, to the extent that it’s reasonable, we will end up using roughly that standard. And that that’s what we’re doing. I don’t—I wouldn’t want to say that I know in any instance where we would deviate from that or where we might exceed it.”
At the end of the play, Lord Justice Steyn stated that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had made an agreement with the Pentagon that stipulated that
prisoners who are British citizens would not face the death penalty. “This,” said Steyn, “gives a new dimension to the concept of ‘most favored nation’.” A program note acknowledged interviews with real prisoners’ families and their attorneys. However, attempts to interview U.S. or British officials were not successful.
Little action takes place on the “Guantanamo” stage. There is no “conflict” between the characters, and definitely no resolution for the remaining 550
prisoners. And rightly so. For prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, life moves in perpetual monotony, while their future remains in limbo.
The enormity, the seriousness, of the situation portrayed in “Guantanamo” is such that no curtain call followed the performance. The audience was left to sit
in the dark to ponder the evils wreaked on thousands of innocents on the whims of The Powers That Be.