THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Their theater relies on life to initiate conversations

Married playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank in Los Angeles. Married playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank in Los Angeles. (Eric Grigorian for the Boston Globe)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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The documentary-theater play “Aftermath,’’ which chronicles the harrowing experiences of Iraqi civilians during the war, can sneak up on you stealthily, like a long-buried memory.

One minute, the characters are inviting you to share coffee, tea, and bread and telling you about their love of soccer, cooking, or the movie “Pretty Woman.’’ One couple fondly remembers building their home together, while another playfully jokes about their courtship years before. A man discusses his career as a theater director and teacher; a dermatologist recalls the convertible he used to drive. Then, a few moments later, one of the men’s voices begins to rise as he talks about the brutal torture of his nephew by American mercenaries, an imam boils over in rage while recalling his imprisonment at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and a physically and emotionally scarred woman numbly recounts surviv ing a roadside bomb explosion that killed her husband and infant son.

The stories in “Aftermath,’’ which arrives at the Paramount Theatre for a run Wednesday through Oct. 31, can make you ache with despair, tremble with sorrow, and shudder with frustration and anger.

Drawn from a series of interviews with Iraqi refugees who fled to Jordan, the play is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife team of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, who first rose to prominence with their watershed documentary-theater play “The Exonerated.’’ Tackling the hot-button topic of the death penalty through the stories of wrongly convicted former death-row inmates, “The Exonerated’’ ran for 1 1/2 years off-Broadway (2002-04) with a rotating cast of celebrities, toured the country (including Boston), spawned a book about their experience, and was even turned into a TV movie starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.

“Aftermath,’’ which premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in September 2009, addresses another polarizing subject: the Iraq war and the staggering toll it’s taken on the civilian population in that country. Blank and Jensen say the approach to the two works was similar: to create a conversation around a thorny subject by finding nonideological, human-scale stories that could serve as the entry points, based on interviews with real people.

“We realized that there was something so profound in the simple act of an American civilian talking to an Iraqi civilian and connecting across all of the differences and all of the chasms that are put between us — of language, culture, media images, presumptions, and assumptions,’’ says Blank, speaking via video chat from Los Angeles, where she and her husband, longtime Brooklynites, are living for a year. “To actually cross all of those boundaries and just have a conversation was an incredibly profound act for us and for our interview subjects. They said that to us repeatedly: That there’s hope even just in the dialogue.’’

While “Aftermath’’ has been an emotionally and intellectually rewarding experience for Blank and Jensen, in one significant way nothing can compare to their time working on “The Exonerated,’’ a project especially close to their hearts. As the duo were developing that piece in 2000 and 2001, they fell in love, were soon engaged, and then got married.

They recently became parents of a baby girl, and the affection and respect between them is palpable. The bearded and tattooed Jensen is a garrulous extrovert with an admitted streak of actorly self-absorption, while Blank comes across as smart, sophisticated, and supremely savvy, her pretty features partially obscured behind a pair of black-frame glasses.

The inspiration for “Aftermath’’ can be traced to New York Theatre Workshop’s summer retreat at Dartmouth College in 2007, where Blank was helping to develop a play called “Liberty City.’’ Over breakfast, she was talking with the workshop’s artistic director, James Nicola, about the lack of dramas that grappled with Iraqi civilians’ perspectives on the war. Blank and Jensen gravitated to the topic, but had some initial hesitancy about tackling another documentary-theater piece in the vein of “The Exonerated.’’

“We started to call it ‘The Exon-and-on-and-on-erated,’ because it just took on this life of its own,’’ Jensen says. “We were very grateful for its success and grateful that the stories were getting out there. But I think there was a lot of temptation that comes with a success like that, and there’s a lot of people who are trying to get you to capitalize on what you’ve done in a cheap way.’’

Adds Blank, “We wanted to do something that was gripping and compelling in the same way, but that wouldn’t be a structural carbon copy of what we had done before.’’

They also had reservations, even in 2008, about how Americans might view a play about the Iraq war. Nearly every major poll now indicates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan barely register on lists of voters’ primary concerns.

“Nobody can even talk about the wars anymore,’’ says Blank. “We’re all so exhausted by it, and people’s ideologies are kind of locked in.’’

“It’s one of the most significant conflicts happening in the world at the moment,’’ echoes Jensen. “But it’s impolite to have a conversation about it over dinner.’’

Still, the two plowed ahead with the project, with Nicola and New York Theatre Workshop producing. They secured a Ford Foundation grant and traveled to Jordan for two weeks in June 2008. With the help of the nonprofit Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, they interviewed almost 40 Iraqis who had fled to Jordan in the wake of the war. They tried to speak to as broad a cross-section as possible, from a variety of class, education, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

They also sought to avoid bringing their own politics or any kind of political agenda to the piece. Their goal, they say, was “to serve as a conduit’’ for the people telling their stories.

In their conversations, Jensen and Blank were struck by how much they identified with the people to whom they were speaking and how their perceptions of the Middle East appeared wildly off-base. “You’re sitting in someone’s house who has every reason in the world to dislike you,’’ Blank says. “But people’s first impulse was to welcome us into their homes and pour us tea and share themselves with us. People were so open and warm, in ways that were both surprising and moving to us.’’

The show’s minimalist staging features eight characters and a translator, seated in chairs or standing, telling their stories to the audience as the spotlight shifts onto each speaker. Since its premiere in New York last fall, “Aftermath’’ has been touring internationally, and its creators hope to eventually bring the play to the Middle East.

Blank and Jensen say they want to continue to create other documentary-style pieces, but they will be patient for the right project to come along. (They were first inspired to work in the genre by such trailblazers of the form as Anna Deveare Smith, Emily Mann, and Moises Kaufman.)

“We want to make sure that we give ourselves a little breathing room in between pieces,’’ says Blank, “to get some distance from the last thing that we did and think about ways to innovate, to take the form a little bit further with the next project, and to look for subject matter that will allow us to do that.’’

In the meantime, Blank and Jensen are busy working on a number of projects on the West Coast. Jensen, who played Red Sox nemesis Thurman Munson in the miniseries “The Bronx Is Burning’’ and has acted in shows including “CSI’’ and “The Good Wife,’’ wrote a graphic novel called “The Reconcilers’’ (with art by Neal Adams) that’s due out in December. Blank’s second novel, “Almost Home,’’ has been adapted into a screenplay, which is being developed into a film. The couple are also writing a play about the legendary music critic Lester Bangs.

“I think we’re both people who like to put ourselves in situations creatively and artistically where we don’t necessarily know everything walking in,’’ Blank says. “As Erik likes to say, the three best words in the English language next to ‘I love you’ are ‘I don’t know.’ I just think there’s so much creative and transformative potential in that space of questioning and that space of not knowing, that we try to kind of keep ourselves coming back to that space over and over again.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

AFTERMATH

Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Oct. 27-31. Tickets: $25-$79. 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org