Using the Theatre to Talk About War
The PEN World Voices Festival included a variety of staged readings of plays, presented at the Martin E. Segal Theatre, part of the CUNY Graduate Center. Keeping with PEN’s purpose of international dialogue and diverse perspectives, this program boasted 10 plays by respected dramatists, each from a different region of the world. Two of these works dealt directly with war and the effect of war on communities and individuals. Both were cut down from lengthy plays to 90-minute readings and included discussions with the playwrights, as well as the directors and translators, after the reading.
The first reading I attended, on April 17, was of the play “Goats,” written by Liwaa Yazji from Syria (the author was unable to be at the event, an effect of the current ban on Muslim visas) and translated by Katharine Halls. A cast of nearly a dozen actors came on the stage to read, depicting the residents of a small Syrian town losing more and more men to the war. Rather than this being a tragedy, the townspeople are proud their sons and husbands are martyrs in the fight for freedom. The people are urged by a local political leader to sacrifice their children’s lives for the nation, as they are “fighting on behalf of the entire civilized world.” Those whose family members die are gifted with a goat from the leaders.
If you’re wondering who they’re fighting against, and which side they’re on, the play asks this very question: “who is the enemy?” Although most of the townspeople are certain that their sons are fighting terrorists, it’s purposefully unclear where these soldiers are being sent, and who they’re fighting against. One father who lost his son doubts that it’s even his son’s body in the coffin, and suspects that many soldiers are being killed by their own side. He stands up against the leaders, demanding the truth, but no one stands with him. He espouses “we have all killed our children through our ignorance and fear,” and urges one woman who gets a call from her son who has purportedly found a terrorist, to tell him to run and come home rather than kill the supposed enemy.
The play explores the notion of truth, the party leader asking, “what is truth in a time of war?” Another character states that “everyone lies; everyone chooses the lies they know, the lies they believe.” The age of “alternative truth” had not yet reached its peak when Yazji wrote this play, but she discussed, via Skype, how truth is very problematic in times of war when people normalize acts of violence and hide from the truth to keep their morals. Yazji also addressed the idea of perspective, of who is a terrorist and who is fighting for good. She said that by having the play performed in the U.S. and other parts of the West, she hopes to create an alternative to the portrayal of the war in the media, and to promote a common ground between people seeing the play and those experiencing the war in Syria. The director, Zishan Ugurlu, ended with the statement “power is terrorizing everything,” a notion that many in the U.S. will immediately identify with. I found the play a compelling reminder that the people of Syria are living through a horror in which they are terrorized by the regime in power, as well as by the Islamic State, but are also themselves being accused of being terrorists by other countries.
“In War as in Games” by Edouard Elvis Bvouma, of Cameroon, was read on April 21. This play is essentially one long monologue of a child soldier in an unnamed African country. He is speaking to a young girl his own age (roughly 11-13 years-old); they are alone, left in a camp, unsure where the other soldiers have gone or where to go next. The young soldier tells the girl about his experience as a soldier and his personal past, while also revealing traumas of her own experience that he has witnessed. His speech is cut up in sections, the titles read by the actress playing the silent girl, but it is a steady stream of horrific stories of violence, ebullient anecdotes, and enthused discussion of Western cartoons, comics, and video games.
The heroic violence of comic book and TV characters is brought to the forefront of this exploration of war, through the eyes of a child forced to grow up much too fast. He copes with it all just fine, since in his eyes he’s a grown-up, and he’s doing exactly what all those fictional Western heroes do: defeating enemies. The blurred line between hero and villain is similar to the problem of who the enemy is. A child soldier sees himself as the hero, killing targets as in a video game. The age-old strategy of dehumanizing the enemy works well on children who have grown up with violent media, and the play presents him as neither hero or villain, but as an unsuspecting victim of a war he doesn’t understand.
The language (translated from French by Heather Jeanne Denyer) is extraordinary, made more so by the performance of the actor, Doron Mitchell, who had read the piece only the day before. It’s the frenzied language of a pre-teen boy, sure of himself, laughing about everything, revealing atrocities that are to him commonplace, switching from a harrowing experience of his village being burned to the lighthearted plot of a TV Western so seamlessly that I was lulled into his rhythm and laughed along with him after being horrified a moment before.
Bvouma said in the discussion that he had never met a child soldier, since this is not a phenomenon in his country, but as it’s a widespread issue in nearby countries (such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), it was something he wanted to address. Drawing from his own experience as a child and his own obsession with cartoons and comics, he imagined the realities of how a child soldier might think. Another intriguing aspect of this play is the silent girl, who we learn from the child soldier has been continually raped, but we never hear her voice or get her perspective. After writing this play, Bvouma felt the need to explore that perspective as well and wrote a new play about a girl’s experience with war, abduction, and rape. He referred to the 2014 abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014 and again this year as events hitting close to home, since Nigeria borders Cameroon. Although the writer in this case has no direct experience with these issues, the play felt authentic rather than sensational or removed—an artist compelled to give voice to the children in neighboring countries experiencing unconscionable horrors.
Both plays are upfront about the complexities of war and the fact that there are no simple answers or explanations of what happens during wartime, to soldiers or citizens. Perspective is key, and truth is blurred by individual experience and by those who we choose to believe or are forced to put our faith in. There are emotional casualties as much as physical casualties, unexpected allies with strangers, and painful conflicts with neighbors. To imagine a stranger’s experience, to understand the human involvement behind barbaric actions or within terrorist conflicts—this is what these playwrights are asking us to do, in order to bring us closer to empathy rather than fear, and to realize the real terror: war, in all its forms.