The drama of the thinking heart

Each play relies upon
the witnessing abilities of others to set free the imaginative forces of
resistance. 

Extreme
Whether, 
written
and directed by Karen Malpede with George Bartenieff,  Di Zhu, Ellen Fisk, Jeff McCarthy and Kathleen Purcell. Photo
(c) Beatriz Schiller. All rights reserved.

For
the past twenty-two years, Theater Three
Collaborative
has been producing ecofeminist-pacifist plays in New York and
Europe, on a shoestring and against all odds. Now a book,
Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter,
Another Life, Prophecy, Extreme Whether
, documents this unlikely journey through four scripts, seven
critical commentaries and 32 production photos.

Our
plays are character and story-driven, creating worlds into which the audience
enters in order to experience the transformations of characters caught-up in
the genocidal histories of modern life. Characters are not immune from
fate—they might be raped or tortured, have committed a terrible war crime, been
lied about and censored—but they resist the implications of their fates and
find the resources to change their story through deep encounters with others
who act as empathetic witnesses. Each play is full of moments of such turnings
from despair to strength, and each relies upon the witnessing abilities of
others to set free the imaginative forces of resistance.

I’ve titled
my preface to Plays in Time “The
Drama of the Thinking Heart,” and written there that these four plays are meant
to “bring us to our senses. Poetry
is wild nature produced by human nature, a song between a living cosmos and an
ever-emergent self. This is why preservation of life in all its sentient forms
is the work of the dramatic poet and why the poet must be fiercely engaged in
the exploration, creation and manifestation of justice on this earth and for
earth’s creatures.”

All
theater, but especially a poetic-political theater, is about breath, language
and body, since these are its tools and affects. As an actor’s breathing
deepens, the language enters more fully into their bodies and this intensity
transfers to the audience. Understanding of one’s own plight clarifies,
memories rouse, and insights gather. We are alone but sit together in community.
As each character’s stories touch individual members of the audience, a
collective experience is generated.

“The
body keeps the score,” says trauma specialist Besel van der Kolk, meaning that
the ills we suffer or inflict stay with us, determining our mental and physical
health, blocking our way. The potential of theater is to reach inside the body
to touch or dislodge a source of understanding or of pain. Sometimes in our
work we see this happen.

The
Beekeeper’s Daughter,
for example, is about a victim of the systematic
rapes of Bosnian women who finds healing with the help of some eccentric
American ex-pats. It was performed in New York while the war in Bosnia continued.
The word got out and Bosnian and Croatian refugees to the United States came
nightly; their welcome to their new country was enhanced by a play that told
their stories to Americans in ways everyone might understand. Several refugee
women and their families became our friends, sharing meals and holidays.

Similarly,
I was working with Palestinian-American writer and actor Najla Said when she became
trapped in Beirut by the Israeli bombardment in 2006. I used her emails to help
craft the characters I was already writing for her in Prophecy,
viewing her correspondence as an aesthetic gift that allowed me a better
understanding of the terror of war. In her own commentary on the play, Najla writes: “Somehow she had taken
everything I had said and expressed and created three different women for me to
play…We never spoke of it, but I think Karen knows quite clearly what she did
for me…: she allowed me to process my trauma through art.”

Another Life, about
the US torture program, begins on September 11, 2001. The mogul Handel watches
the towers implode from his Soho loft and plots how to profit from the coming
wars—he will found Deepwater, a private contracting firm based on Eric Prince’s
Blackwater. While the play is fiction, its torture stories are real.

Abu
Zubaydah,
a high profile detainee, is still imprisoned in Guantanamo after
being brutally tortured at several ‘black sites.’ Zubaydah lied to stop the
pain, for that is how torture ‘works;’ ‘bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were in
cahoots,’ he said. Emad Khydayir Shahuth Al-Janabi was just a citizen, picked
up at random in one of the nighttime house raids, held naked and chained in Abu
Ghraib. A transcript of his testimony was given to me by journalist Donovan
Webster, working with lawyer Susan Burk who was
suing Caci and other private contracting firms for the torture of Iraqi citizens.
The testimony is used verbatim: “I was beaten in front of my wife and
children…I was forced inside a wooden crate…slammed into a wall…told I would be
executed…I said I know nothing. I know nothing to say. I have done nothing.”

We
workshopped the play at the National Theatre of Kosovo, where our
English-speaking Kosovar actors each had a private story of the torture of a
family member or themselves to share from their own recent war.

In New
York, we learned from the actor who played Handel’s daughter that her grandfather
had been tortured in China by the Japanese. A recent Iraqi refugee acted the
role of Abdul, the undocumented Egyptian cab driver whom Handel makes his
personal slave. He had seen the brutality of the American occupation up close
as the tanks rolled into Baghdad, and had dodged bullets in the streets, caught
in a firefight between insurgents and invaders. He had come through Egypt to
the United States, and found in this play about the occupation and the torture
camps an opportunity to speak his truth. He has since married an American human
rights worker who first saw him on-stage in Another
Life
. They have a child.

Ours
is a completely improbable theater endeavor for New York in the age of
hyper-gentrification, neo-liberalism, and endless war. I like to say our
audience is comprised of people who long for the sort of live, communal
experience that only the theater can provide, but who have given up on theater
in general because it no longer speaks to them. We often surround our productions
with what we call ‘Festivals of Conscience.’ These are post-play conversations
between experts, activists and audiences. They allow audiences to hear about
specific initiatives or to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. The
Festivals of Conscience link the intensely private yet communal experience of
watching a poetic play to a public dialogue about the redress of social wrongs.

When Prophecy premiered in London in 2008, we
hosted a packed post-play conversation between Israeli author Ilan Pappé and Oxford
Professor Karma Nabulsi.
When the play opened in New York two years later, antiwar activists and
thinkers including Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Laura Flanders and David Swanson
dialogued with our audiences, which included theater parties from the ACLU,
Peace Action New York, Code Pink and the War Resisters League. Pre-selling
these blocks of tickets allowed us to fund the play.

We
opened Another Life in New York on
the weekend of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, preceded by a panel
of four lawyers who had been representing Guantanamo detainees for years. Each
one, in turn, remarked, “Our justice system is broken.”

Every
subsequent performance of Another Life has
been followed by talks from human rights and anti-torture activists who
lamented the lack of concern among Americans. In fact, over 50 per cent of the
American public believes that torture is “all right to keep us safe.” Darius Rejali, author
of Torture and Democracy who
collected these statistics, explained his research
to audiences after the opening night in Brooklyn. He compared Another Life to “Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
because “it captures the story of a decade in just six characters.”

The
first public reading of Extreme Whether
took place in 2013, in the week in which Dr. James Hansen,
America’s pre-eminent climate scientist, resigned his post at NASA so that he
would be free to sue the government. He is an expert witness in the “Our
Children’s Future” lawsuit being brought by minors in defense of the planet—his
granddaughter Sophie among them. Hansen had already read the play, and had given
me one note about it: “warming must be held far
below
two degrees Celsius.” He came to watch and speak to an audience of
150 people, and returned for the play’s opening in a staged production at
Theater for the New City in the fall of 2014, just after the People’s Climate
March
had brought 400,000 onto the streets.

Hansen’s
talks, like most of those I’ve mentioned, are available on our website.
Extreme
Whether
will be revived at LaMama in New York from March
1-18, 2018. Its story of the censorship of climate science is ever more
pertinent today.

So it
is that we try in every way that we can to bridge the artistic and the
social-political experience, for we believe that art is meant to give us
strength and insight, and to mobilize our feelings and our thoughts so that we can
bring nuanced understanding, depth and commitment to our activist lives.

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