If only we’d listened to Senator Robert Byrd. The news report is four and a half years old now, but I keep it on my computer and reread it every so often, to remind myself that on March 19, 2003, with our misconceived, ill-prepared, foolhardy invasion of Iraq in full swing, somebody among our nation’s leadership had the sense to say, “Today I weep for my country.” And Senator Byrd went on to say that by invading Iraq, America had turned its back on its principles, undermined international order, and made the world a more dangerous place. Four and a half years later, I wonder how many Americans still disagree with him.
Life in wartime is never easy. Carrying it on, as we are, under the most disastrously incompetent and corrupt administration in U.S. history, it’s hard to know what any of us can do as individuals. The Republicans, who got us into this mess, are beyond hope; the Democrats, in their cautious and indecisive maneuvering, seem less openly vicious but otherwise not much better. The carnage in Iraq drags on and on; life on the home front, its federal safety net gutted by the greed of Bush & Co., gets worse daily.
If lone individuals are at a loss, imagining what the theater should do under these circumstances is even tougher. Obviously, the war needs to be brought home to the public, in ways not available on TV or the Internet: Perceptions need to be deepened, the ire level needs to be raised, information that goes beyond Pentagon press releases needs to be supplied. These wouldn’t solve the problems we face, but at least they could help the public see exactly how much muck we’re stuck in. How you do this remains an open question; given our media-dazed time, how you make your art reach a wider public instead of merely preaching to the choir has become an even bigger one.
J.T. Rogers’s The Overwhelming deals with the genocidal civil war in Rwanda, but it probably wouldn’t have been produced at this juncture if we hadn’t invaded Iraq. The Overwhelming supplies some data, long since familiar, about what happened in Rwanda, but its focus is on the interactions of a staggeringly naive American family—a professor (Sam Robards) hunting material for the book that will get him tenure, his African-American writer wife (Linda Powell), and his teenage son (Michael Stahl-David) by his first wife. The clan has apparently dropped in so that this bleeding Third World nation can help them sort out their domestic priorities. (The dramaturgy itself smacks of American arrogance, as if we couldn’t understand or wouldn’t care if the play were only about Rwandans.)
Naturally, crashing through the fragile situation like beasts in the underbrush, the three end up endangering the lives of everybody they meant to help, as well as their own. It would be neat as a parable if we hadn’t heard it told so many times before. (It has affinities with Paul Bowles’s novel Let It Come Down and Jon Robin Baitz’s recent A Fair Country, among other works.) First produced at London’s National Theatre, Rogers’s work must have delighted British audiences, who love to see Americans being clueless onstage. We, unfortunately, can get enough of that at home.
Still, Rogers’s melodrama has its effective moments, and Max Stafford- Clark’s swift, economical staging redoubles their effectiveness, eking powerful performances out of his excellent cast. Stahl-David, Ron Cephas Jones as the Rwandan friend who may not be all he seems, Owiso Odera as a series of differently hostile officials, and Sharon Washington, as the friend’s desperate wife, all register with particular force. And the show is nearly stolen by Boris McGiver, doubling as a snooty French diplomat and a South African human-rights activist: He turns these two roles, both written as little more than conduits for information the audience needs, into accent-perfect, wholly believable individuals.
Black Watch is a different kettle of fighting fish. Created by Scots artists for Scots audiences, and presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, it draws on the experiences in Iraq of soldiers of the historic Black Watch regiment—which has such ancient emotional ties to Scottish history that its deployment to Iraq was viewed by separatists as something like a desecration. Here, too, much of the material is familiar—soldiers in every war endure the same experiences; just add the desert and high-tech weapons—but it’s kept fresh by being treated from several unusual angles. As well as being foreign to us, the Scots soldiers are peacekeepers rather than combatants: Their nerve-racking position as helpless onlookers links to ours, except that they face situations we can only imagine. And any facile sneering at Americans is mitigated by their own discomfiting relationships with England, Scottish civilians, and their regiment’s tradition. A hilarious top-speed narration of that last, with costume illustrations, exemplifies the ingenious way in which writer Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany have usefully made the evening a collage of fragments, sliding into one another, often through an inventive use of props or sound, in the tradition that began here in the ’60s with the Open Theatre’s Viet Rock. Tiffany sometimes lets individual sequences run on too long, but the text is sharp and the performance intense. That it won’t give us, or Britain, any extra impetus to heave ourselves out of our Iraqi quagmire may be beside the point.