They were everywhere, and then the painful images of Abu Ghraib — with the notable exception of Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure — were buried under a few scapegoats and the mire of Afghanistan. Aftermath, a potent stage documentary penned by the compilers of The Exonerated and brought by ArtsEmerson to the Paramount Theatre (through October 31) in a New York Theatre Workshop production, digs them up and spits them out in words. Specifically, in the words of an imam who was incarcerated at the infamous Baghdad prison for more than a year and is one of the nine voices of Aftermath, which was culled from nearly 40 interviews conducted in 2008 by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with Iraq refugees forging interrupted lives across the border in Jordan.
Of course, the play does not start out flinging the hateful indignities of Abu Ghraib across the footlights. It begins disarmingly, with the offer — in Arabic — of tea or coffee as the interviewers, for whom we are stand-ins, arrive ahead of their translator. (Blank and Jensen report that they almost drowned in proffered beverages while visiting these polite people in their homes away from home.) When Shahid (the only composite character) does arrive, he tells occupation jokes. And even as the friendly chat devolves into first-person accounts of chaos and near-Kafka-esque carnage, we have the buffer of the actors telling their subjects' cross-cut stories once removed.
But slowly, subtly, we are seduced, not just by the speakers' rage and anguish, but also by their bewilderment. Rafiq, a pharmacist whose university-student nephew was summarily murdered by Americans, wants to know, "Who is the criminal? Who is the suspect? Who is the judge?" He continues: "You know . . . Iraq was like a — a young woman, who was covered at least with a garment. And you come, and you tell her, 'I will give you a better garment.' And you force her to be nude, and you didn't give her another garment. And she's still naked."
The persons Blank and Jensen interviewed are mostly educated and solvent, if not affluent: Iraqis with the means to escape their war-ravaged country. These include, in addition to Rafiq, Shahid, and infuriated imam Abdul-Aliyy, hotshot dermatologist Yassar, who chose his specialty because he hated blood but who wound up knee deep in it; university-cosseted theater artists Asad and Fadilah, whose funding and inspiration shriveled as violence threatened; irrepressible cook Fouad and his wife, Naimah, who fled the country when their Sunni neighbor was murdered by Shi'a militia and they were pressured to spy for the killers; and bereft Christian Basima, survivor of a car bombing. Fervent about Iraq, Baghdad, and Fallujah, these folks recall a land where Sunni, Shi'a, Christian, and Jew co-existed in peace ("We didn't care the difference") and where, "if we kept our nose off politics . . . we had some space." Despite its brutalizing dictator, the cradle of civilization was, they insist, a civilized place until democracy arrived.