‘Aftermath’ brings Iraq war close to home

Leila Buck and Fajer al-Kaisi in Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s “Aftermath.’’
Leila Buck and Fajer al-Kaisi in Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s “Aftermath.’’
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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“We have left everything behind,’’ an Iraqi refugee named Basima says near the end of “Aftermath,’’ her voice faltering. “Our kings, our stories, our possessions, our wealth.’’

But the stories were not left behind. They live, powerfully, in “Aftermath.’’

In this searing work, now at the Paramount Mainstage, nine actors playing Iraqi refugees face the audience and, singly or in pairs, in tones of grief or fury or genuine bafflement, describe the chaos and suffering the refugees saw or experienced after the United States invaded their country in 2003.

“Aftermath’’ was created by the husband-and-wife team of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank from interviews they conducted in 2008 with Iraqi citizens who had sought refuge in Jordan as the war raged. A production of New York Theatre Workshop presented by ArtsEmerson, the play has arrived in Boston just days after documents were released by the website WikiLeaks that detail the devastating impact of the Iraq war on that country’s civilian population.

“Aftermath’’ has a lot more than topicality going for it, however. Rather than construct a mere polemic — though it has a distinctly antiwar point of view — Blank and Jensen do the crucial work that art can do. They remind us of the price paid by innocent human beings for the grandiose policy goals of those who invariably manage to stay a safe, abstract distance from the bloodshed they cause.

Moreover, “Aftermath’’ underscores how some theater artists are also playing a quasijournalistic role, shining a light on issues and stories that once might have been left to reporters, as Jensen and Blank previously did with “The Exonerated,’’ a look at wrongfully convicted inmates who had been on death row.

In July, for instance, Mike Daisey performed “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’’ in a production presented by the Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth. In putting together the monologue, Daisey drew partly on his research during a three-week trip to China, where he studied the working conditions of the people who manufacture products for Apple.

A few weeks ago, ArtsEmerson presented the world premiere of the Tectonic Theater Project’s “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.’’ Like 2000’s “The Laramie Project,’’ with which it ran in repertory at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, “Ten Years Later’’ was created from extensive interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyo., about the horrific 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Now comes “Aftermath,’’ an incisive foray into documentary theater presented with a stark simplicity by a talented ensemble. The actors directly address the audience, as if its members were conducting an interview with them — and also, more pertinently, as if those same audience members bear a large share of moral responsibility for the tragedies they are describing. A translator named Shahid, adroitly played by Fajer al-Kaisi, acts as interlocutor. When they are not speaking, the actors sit on chairs or benches, eyes downcast or gazing at one another or with their backs to the audience.

They come from various walks of life: Fouad (Barzin Akhavan) and Naimah (Rasha Zamamiri) are cooks; Fadilah (Maha Chehlaoui) is an artist; Rafiq (Ramsey Faragallah) is a pharmacist; Abdul-Aliyy (Ted Sod) is an imam. At first, they tell simple tales of their everyday lives in prewar Iraq, creating a nostalgic portrait while making it clear that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship sent tremors of fear and trepidation throughout Iraqi society. Still, Shahid says: “We knew where the red lines were. . . . We had some space.’’

Maybe that was true, and maybe it wasn’t, but in any case, finding a space free from fear became hard to do once the war began. Tales of personal loss pour forth in “Aftermath,’’ adding up to a damning indictment.

In a heart-rending sequence, Basima (Leila Buck) describes how her husband and her 2-month-old child, as well as her sister, were killed by a car bomb. With mounting rage, the imam recounts how he was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for 14 months without a trial, and how, after he was released, his son was killed and left in a garbage dump.

Rafiq disintegrates emotionally as he recalls how bearded, earring-wearing Americans who were “not regular soldiers’’ pumped a fatal fusillade of bullets into his college-age nephew right in front of the young man’s mother. “So why did you kill Akram?’’ Rafiq asks. “Why was he killed, who was responsible for spilling his blood, and for what reason?’’

The question hangs in the air, inescapable, unanswerable, and, like much of “Aftermath,’’ haunting.

Don Aucoin can be reached at

AFTERMATH Play by: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

Directed by Jessica Blank

Sets, Richard Hoover. Lights, Caleb Wertenbaker. Costumes, Gabriel Berry.

Produced by New York Theatre Workshop. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

At: Paramount Mainstage. Through Sunday, Oct. 31

Tickets $25-$79, 617-824-8000,