Baghdad’s Theater of War
Actors Present ‘a Miniature of Our Reality,’ With Its Pains and Perils
By Ernesto LondoÃ±o
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007; A01
BAGHDAD The curtain rose on a barren stage. An actor lying with his back to the audience snored loudly. Stage right, a skinny young woman in a floral print dress used her hands to drag her crippled body forward.
“Mother, mother, I am sick,” she said in a low, hoarse voice. “Call me the doctor, quickly quick.”
A car bomb, the audience would soon discover, had blown her legs to shreds.
“Mother, mother, I am sick,” she continued, progressively louder, uttering the play’s only English lines. “Call me the doctor, quickly quick.”
A cast of rowdy, histrionic characters soon joined her onstage for another matinee at Baghdad’s renowned National Theater — the nucleus of Iraq’s rebounding theater community and one of the few spots in this inhospitable capital where the prevailing mood is jovial, the rules of fashion are lax and creative ideas flourish. A few feet outside the building’s metal fence, inset with gold-painted masks, soldiers man checkpoints ringed with concertina wire.
“The Intensive Care Unit,” a one-act play, satirizes the country’s ruined state. Cast members — university students and recent graduates — also portray a broken-hearted lover, a poet without a muse, an actor with no stage and a man hunched over from frantically searching for his lost ID. There’s also a sweeper, a theater director, an Iraqi who wants to be a Westerner, a bully and The Authority, a stoic man in a long black coat to whom they all turn for guidance.
The cast includes Sunnis, Shiites and a Christian. The actors are unpaid and most are unemployed. Performances are held only during the day, because the city turns into a ghost town after dark. There is no entrance fee. Audience members, most of whom are fellow actors or friends of cast members, are frisked for weapons and explosives as they enter.
Despite the long odds and perils, the actors say, there’s nowhere they’d rather be than onstage.
“What we have is love of theater,” the play’s director, Kahil Khalid, said one day, standing in the darkened and dusty lobby of the once-grand theater. “If we wanted money, we would go looting.”
The company this year received a small stipend from the Iraqi government, but that didn’t even cover the cost of taking cabs to rehearsals, the actors said. Their wardrobe is simple, drawn mostly from their own closets. Their only props: debris collected at the scene of a car bombing — a burned tire, a shredded shoe, school supplies — piled in the lobby.
“Our play is a miniature of our reality,” said Rita Casber, 24, the only woman in the cast. “It conveys the reality the people in Iraq are subjected to.”
The cast lost two actors after rehearsals began several months ago. One man, a Sunni, was displaced from his neighborhood by Shiite militia members. The woman first cast in the role of the crippled girl backed out after opening night because she received an anonymous threat for wearing a tank top onstage.
Like many stage actors in Iraq, cast members of “The Intensive Care Unit” have reported almost daily to the National Theater since the war began. Most days they wander around the lobby, chatting, laughing, catching up and discussing projects that never come to fruition.
Iraq had three main forms of theater before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Comedies appealed to large audiences and were put on merely to entertain. Propaganda plays typically hailed Saddam Hussein‘s government and disparaged Iran and the United States. And experimental theater catered to small, elite audiences and was one of the few vehicles used to take discreet stabs at the country’s rulers.
A government committee vetted all theater productions before opening night. But renegade companies either veiled their criticism or kept it out of performances viewed by the committee.
Khalid was among those who relished in the subtle swipes. As a theater student, he was once investigated merely for introducing the date Aug. 8 — which marked the end of the widely unpopular Iran-Iraq war — into a production of “Othello.”
“We passed things through symbolism,” he said. “It was a struggle. There was censorship, ideological monitoring.”
While that form of censorship has ended, the theater community in Iraq has never felt more besieged, actors say. Fearing the wrath of religious fundamentalists who in recent years have targeted intellectuals, many actors have gone abroad, a few with job offers, many simply to get away.
The thought has crossed Bushra Ismail’s mind. The actress, legendary in Iraq for her poignant performances on screen and stage, says leaving would entail accepting defeat.
“They’ve asked me: Why don’t I go abroad?” she said on a recent morning in the National Theater’s lobby, where a few dozen actors had convened to mourn the slaying of yet another colleague. “Because I have seen not only the targeting of actors, but all thinkers, college professors.”
It’s not clear who’s targeting the theater community or why.
Khalid’s best friend, a fellow actor, was slain in August 2005 after returning from a brief trip to North Carolina.
“They’re uneducated people,” Khalid said. “Just because he went to America they thought he was a spy.”
These days, funerals bring the community together more often than plays. At least 14 actors have been killed since the war began.
The fall of Hussein in theory liberated Iraq’s artistic community. But freedom has been, at best, a mixed blessing for stage actors.
“Yes, now we perform what we want,” said Hatem Aoudah, a veteran director. “But this freedom is soaked in blood.”
As showtime for “The Intensive Care Unit” approached, the angst and indignities of producing a play in a war zone appeared to dissipate.
The actors scuttled in and out of a tiny dressing room, where more than half of the light bulbs were out and the mirrors were stained. The men stripped down to their boxer shorts in the presence of the lone female actor as they changed into their costumes. Hair spray filled the air.
“Prisons during Saddam’s time used to look like this,” joked Haider Jumaa, who plays the lover, as he stepped out of the packed changing room.
Backstage, standing next to a dilapidated piano and a handful of broken chairs, the actors waited. Some paced back and forth. Others smoked.
Large spotlights shone as the curtain rose. Both were powered by a generator. Only the first few rows of the theater were filled.
The production unfolded flawlessly, with repeated outbursts of laughter and applause.
In the last scene, cast members surround Uday Sadoun, the actor who plays The Authority, beseeching him for direction.
“If you want us to sleep, we will sleep,” they say in unison. “If you want us to cry, we will cry. If you want us to fly, we will fly. We’re all waiting for you.”
The Authority stands motionless and says nothing.
The curtain dropped.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.