Washington, D.C.’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival is producing a series of plays intending to disrupt our thinking about how we operate as a people and a nation. Annalisa Dias’ 4,380 Nights may be the hardest hitting of these productions, taking us inside Guantanamo where 41 men suspected of terrorist activity are still being detained, some for more than ten years. Dias has crafted a play filled with history, horror, humanity, and, yes, humor. She is a playwright to watch.
Entering Signature’s Ark Theater, one of the actors is already on stage. As Malik Essaid, Ahmad Kamal is dressed in prison orange, his hands and feet chained and attached to an anchor in the stage’s floor. As the audience files in, he does not shy away from eye contact, yet his gaze is defiant, challenging us. As the play unfolds, Kamal skillfully takes us inside Malik’s world as the prisoner displays an astounding array of emotions trying to understand what he has done to warrant incarceration in a hellhole like Guantanamo. How can a nation that stands for the rule of law, that guarantees its citizens the right to a just and speedy trial, imprison Malik and others for years without formally charging them with a crime?
Ahmad Kamal and Michael John Casey
When Bud Abramson (Michael John Casey) shows up to represent Malik, he offers something of an explanation: “The government has created a black hole for the legal process.” Malik is at first reluctant to accept Abramson’s help, unsure whether he can trust any American. But the lawyer is persistent, saying that not all Americans approve of what is happening at Guantanamo. These tabletop conversations between Malik and Abramson are riveting. Slowly, Abramson teases out Malik’s story, how the young man left Algeria and then traveled to Paris, Afghanistan, and London where, with a forged passport, he was taken into custody and shipped to Guantanamo. Did he make a series of stupid mistakes, or was he part of a terrorist network? While Abramson seems willing to believe Malik, one of the prison’s military officers (Rex Daugherty), will go to any length, including physical and psychological abuse, to obtain a confession. This violent scene is so realistic (kudos to fight choreographer Robb Hunter) that it is difficult to watch, perhaps the reason some members of the audience chose not to return for the second act.
Ahmad Kamal and Rex Daugherty
Each time Malik and Abramson meet, more time has passed. On one occasion, Abramson brings Malik food from an Algerian store. Malik insists they share and each enjoys a stuffed grape leave. Yet Abramson must soon deliver some bad news: Malik’s uncle has died. Malik’s anger dissipates when he learns that Abramson traveled to Paris on his own to confirm the death and to bring back for Malik the uncle’s Koran.
As a pseudo Greek chorus, The Woman (Lynette Rathnam) is an eerie presence as she attempts to educate us about the roots of conflict between a Christian and Muslim world. The history lesson focuses on the war between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (1954-1962) when Algeria won its independence. But the sides were not clearly drawn. Kamal also plays El Hadj El Kaim, an Algerian who aided the French and became complicit in the torture and death inflicted by them upon Algerians. Daugherty takes on a second role as Colonel Aimable Pelissier, the French officer who shows no remorse as the bodies of men, women, and children pile up in the conflict. (There is a lot of information to digest about this war and reading up ahead of time is recommended.)
It’s a cliché for a reviewer to say that there’s not a weak link in a play’s cast, but that certainly is the case here. Kamal’s performance is simply astounding, and he is well matched by Casey in their encounters. The relationship between attorney and client evolves slowly, with each actor revealing sides of his character as they try to cope with the frustration of the situation and to preserve whatever humanity is possible.
Daugherty, with ramrod straight posture, never flinches in his dual role as two military officers who see their roles in black and white terms, damn the consequences. Rathnam’s storytelling draws us in with her facial expressions and graceful movements. She’s simply mesmerizing.
Kathleen Akerley’s skill as a director is evident in every scene, with no false notes struck by this talented cast.
Signature’s intimate Ark Theater is the perfect setting for 4,390 Nights, bringing the audience so close to the action that it’s impossible to look away. Scenic design by Elizabeth Jenkins includes a chain backdrop that echoes prison bars and side areas furnished with pillows and glowing lanterns. Costume design (Heather Lockard) is eye-catching, particularly the satin gown worn by Rathnam.
Guantanamo has slipped from the headlines. Dias again places it on center stage.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Written by Annalisa Dias
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
4200 Campbell Avenue
Through February 18, 2018