Sunday, February 28, 2010

Live theater performers from Iraq and Tunisia bring deep emotion, human connection to Tokyo stage

While living in Tokyo for nearly the past decade as a community peace activist, I have had several opportunities to interact with people from Iraq (human rights journalists, pediatricians, and visual artists, to be precise) during their visits to Japan on grassroots-level exchanges organized by local peace groups. Each time, I came away from the experience with marvelous memories and new friendships.

Last week, a fellow member of the Iraq Hope Network alerted members to two short theater acts taking place at Tiny Alice, a cozy theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. The only available information was a short blurb including the names of the performers and the titles of their pieces: “Abu Ghraib Prison” from the Mustaheel-Alice theater troupe in Baghdad, Iraq; and “Woman Sindyan” from SINDYANA in Tunisia. Knowing from experience that this could be an opportunity for another interesting encounter, I headed together with one of my most engaged university students to check out the shows.

As we entered the diminutive theater, three foreign men who I assumed to be the Iraqi actors were standing in the doorway—one of them bedecked in all camouflage and wearing an extremely stern expression on his face. Still unsure of what to expect, my student and I took a seat in the only available spots, which were on the floor directly in front of the stage.

We soon learned from a pre-show announcement that the three men were in fact the play’s writer, director and musical composer, and that the show was inspired by the story of one of the writer’s friends—a musician who was jailed in Abu Ghraib Prison during the reign of Saddam Hussein. The play began shortly thereafter, immediately shocking the full range of our senses. The camouflaged man, who was clearly acting the part of the guard, cast a brutal gaze as the two prisoners writhed around on the ground, enshrouded alternately inside white sheets and silver tubing material. Also taking center stage were several musical instruments encased in chains and plastic wrap, which all three men took turns reaching for—and then violently throwing aside—to the backdrop of a screaming cacophony of dissonant music.

While the abstract, chaotic nature of the short work (as well as the fact that the only fleeting dialogue was in Arabic) precluded any fast conclusions about what precisely it might have been trying to convey, the general themes were hard to miss by virtue of their universal resonance: the pain and confusion of imprisonment; the resilience of the human spirit even in instances of severe repression; the blurred borders between captive and capturer.

The second work began after a brief intermission, when we were still reeling from the dramatic effects of the first. As it turns out, the Tunisian performance was in fact a one-woman show, with the actor embodying several personas—male in addition to female—and French phrases occasionally mixed in with the mostly Arabic dialogue. While the Japanese subtitles beamed above the stage were somewhat sporadic, we were able to understand that her various characters were expressing anger and indignation at certain times toward colonialist repression, and at others toward gender-based objectification. With a fire and passion that literally seemed to engulf the entire tiny theater house, the full range of characters and emotions embodied by this actor may as well have been those of an entire theater troupe.

The limits of language and theatrical understanding were finally transcended after the final curtain call, when all four performers immediately reassembled onstage for a fully interpreted discussion with the audience. We learned that the Iraqi prison guard had indeed been in character when greeting us at the door, as his previously steely expression had melted away to reveal an entirely different personage of warmth and friendliness. We also learned—as I had begun to suspect—that the Tunisian woman, Zahira Ben Ammar, was a well-respected, world famous performer.

“As actors, we serve as mirrors of society, expressing what is often left unsaid,” she told the audience. “As a female actor, I have the privilege of being able to express myself in ways that are normally not possible for women in other Arab countries. In addition, my show also tries to give voice to the profound pain that has touched all colonized peoples—whether in Tunisia, Gaza or Iraq. I suspect that some of these themes may also resonate with Japanese people, due for example to your painful history in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Anas Abdhul Sammad, the stage director for Mustaheel-Alice, continued, “The first time that I saw Zahira Ben Ammar perform, in Morocco, I was moved beyond words. I am not a person who cries much, but after seeing her I actually went back to my hotel room and wept. I knew that I wanted to bring her with me to Japan to share her work with audiences here, and I am so grateful that she took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to join us.

I would also add that at the same time as the theater allows us to express the deep pain of things like oppression and war, I also find it very disheartening that the television in other countries only shows things like bombs and violence. Of course this is happening and it’s real, but what the TV does not show is the reality of ordinary people living our day-to-day lives. We are one small acting company among countless others in Baghdad, and we try to use theatrical expression to portray various aspects of the human condition.”

Echoing Iraqi visual artist Qasim Sabti, he continued, “The profession of acting, which has been around since the age of Babylon, will long outlive technologies such as modern weaponry. It has always been there to provide support and comfort to people during difficult times—even though the historical contexts are different—and it will continue to do so into the future.”

“I would like to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for being here tonight, and for allowing me to express a part of myself,” Zahira Ben Ammar said at the close of the nearly hour-and-a-half long discussion session. “I felt a strong energy in this room tonight connecting me with all of you---and this is the reason why we continue to do what we do.”

Before leaving the theater, my student and I were able to have a friendly engaged conversation and e-mail exchange with all of the actors, which served to confirm what I already knew: that the real relationships which matter most are not the unhealthy and destructive ones perpetuated by governments and militaries—but the deep connections that take root in intimately engaged spaces such as the one we created in the theater that evening.

Zahira Ben Ammar and the Mustaheel Alice Theater Troupe
(Photo: Kimberly Hughes)

--Kimberly Hughes

Performance photos: Tsukasa Aoki

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