Can a playwright use hatred to end hatred?
When playwright Brian Abernathy walks down the corridor in downtown D.C.’s Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), bemused public policy wonks often stare at him. Others giggle, shake their heads, and wonder aloud why a theater guy is working at a think tank. To his dismay, he’s had to answer the question “Why are you here?” more than once.
Abernathy, 23, finds nothing strange about being a politically engaged playwright. In January, he arrived at CSIS to begin writing Faces Are Red, a three-act play that fuses the tenets of diplomacy with the pathos of drama and attempts to reconcile religious conflict through art. In April, CSIS’s preventive-diplomacy program offered Abernathy a small amount of money and the title “project manager” to have the play produced at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington and to hire a cast of professional actors pooled from the local theater scene.
“Some people say I’m absolutely insane for trying to do this,” Abernathy maintains. “They believe the arts have no political ax to grind. On the other end, a lot of public-policy makers don’t want art in their world. That’s not everybody, but I’ve run into people who are very skeptical of what I’m trying to do.”
With Faces Are Red, which opens this week for a three-day run, Abernathy will be testing his notion that a political statement can reach a broader audience if it’s packaged as art. Billed as “a tragedy of the present, a pageant of the past,” the play falls into what Abernathy refers to as the “theater of reconciliation” genre, a style of drama inspired by South African protest theater of the ’70s; a well-known example of its kind is Athol Fugard’s Playland. By depicting scenes of intolerance and victimization, theater of reconciliation attempts to inspire audiences not to inflict violence upon others.
Faces Are Red examines the relationships among devotees of the world’s greatest monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—in 12 scenes that zigzag across time and geography, from Moorish Spain of the Middle Ages to the present-day Middle East and Balkans. A cast of 13 actors, most of them women, wear red masks to direct attention away from sex and race. Costumes consist of budget-conscious T-shirts dyed green, blue, and violet to distinguish characters as followers of the three disparate religions. As scenes change, so do the characters’ faiths and personalities, foiling the audience’s tendency to judge particular people as villains or saints. In most scenes, at least one cast member acts as narrator to introduce and frame the action.
With choreography, music, poetic narrative sections, and instructive dialogue, Faces Are Red builds on equal parts theater and grass-roots education. It derives its gravity from its stark either/or premise: Either come to terms with difference and foster peace in the community, or write it off and contribute to the perpetuation of bloodshed.
Pretty obvious logic, one would think. Yet public-policy manuals that analyze the consequences of warfare and violent conflict rarely use language that carries emotional weight. Think-tankers and academic policy types deal largely in statistics, logical arguments, and multilateral decision-making. It’s not a terribly artistic approach to brokering peace.
Although at least one scene in each of Faces Are Red’s three acts venerates one of the three religions, many deal with flashpoints of religious strife. The first act, dedicated to the Muslim faith, opens with a scene chronicling the last days of Fuad Gubbay, one of nine Jews accused of espionage by the Iraqi government and executed in the notorious Baghdad Hangings of 1969. To depict Gubbay’s tragic experience, Abernathy drew lines and inspiration from a speech delivered by Percy Gourgey, chair of the Jews of Arab Lands Committee, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the hangings. Gubbay pleaded guilty in order to protect his wife, Selina Gubbay, and son, David, from future persecution; he was executed for crimes it was widely believed he didn’t commit. Abernathy’s scene depicts the psychological fallout of Gubbay’s murder on his family, who are dealt a cruel, lasting reminder of the senselessness of religious hatred.
Act 2 emphasizes the Jews; it begins with a scene in which Jews perpetrate violence against Christians. Set in Beersheba, Israel, the scene revisits the tragic day in 1998 when Jews firebombed a mixed congregation of Christians and Messianic Jews in response to rumors, circulated earlier that morning, that the congregants had kidnapped Jewish children with the intention of baptizing them as Christians. Cast members play worshipers trapped inside the church and alternately stand atop or cower behind pews. “What do they want?” they ask, begging each other—and their God—for an answer. Meanwhile, a loud recorded voice refers to the worshipers as “sons of Satan”—a slur Abernathy extracted from quotes printed in newspaper articles on the event.
The final act of Faces Are Red looks at Christian reactions to their Muslim and Jewish neighbors. The first scene is one of the Holocaust, an event rooted in decades of European anti-Semitism. Abernathy presents the legacy of the death camps in a minimalist, anticlimactic style, relying upon a voice-over rendering of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” for emotional impact. While four cast members stand behind makeshift gravestones, a woman sits on the edge of the stage, silently facing the audience and staring blankly. A voice-over reads Celan’s lines in a cold, listless tone, evoking desperation: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening/We drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/We drink and we drink….”
In the penultimate scene, Abernathy’s time machine makes a stop in Prijedor, Bosnia, where Serbian Christians committed brutal acts against Bosnian Muslims during the ’90s. Abernathy divides the stage in two parts: On the left, Serbian soldiers interrogate and torture a Bosnian woman; on the right side, her boyfriend suffers the same fate. Both are imprisoned with fellow Bosnians, shivering from hunger and gripped by their fears of the future. Eventually, all of the prisoners are led away to a field, which the prisoners recognize as the place they’ll die.
“I will never understand why people kill for God’s sake,” Abernathy says. He hopes his audience will connect the dots that link barbarous murders, rapes, and tortures perpetrated in the name of God; contemplate various people’s shared history of violence; and come away compelled to end strife in their own communities. “Simultaneously,” he explains, “you have to offer a seed of hope.”
Abernathy finds his model society in Moorish culture of ninth- to 13th-century Spain, where Jews, Muslims, and Christians created a thriving civilization noted for breakthroughs in the arts, sciences, and engineering. Harmony thrived until the late 15th century, when the Inquisition forced Muslims and Jews out of the country. Abernathy set scenes of Faces Are Red in Cordova, Granada, and Estella, to provide counterexamples to modern-day sectarian violence.
As Abernathy himself admits, how well the concepts of preventive diplomacy translate on the stage remains iffy. After each performance of Faces Are Red, audience members will receive questionnaires asking for their thoughts and reactions. After the final curtain call, Abernathy will write an evaluation based on survey responses as well as his own thoughts, and determine whether his experiment worked.
“I’ve never been interested in being an apolitical artist,” Abernathy says. Born in Boston, he has lived in New Mexico, Missouri, and Arkansas, among other places. While a student at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., he earned a B.A. in political and philosophical theater, produced several of his own plays, and acted in others’ productions.
His mentor at CSIS, Joseph Montville, is a public-policy expert—not a playwright. Montville, director of the preventive-diplomacy program at CSIS, helped define “Track Two,” a form of nonofficial diplomacy that relies on institutions outside government to help resolve conflict. He has explored Moorish Spain as a working model for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, as well as for other communities in the Middle East, Greece, Northern Ireland, and Asia. Montville maintains a visiting professorship at Coker and met Abernathy last spring after a lecture Montville delivered on conflict resolution.
“Wherever there’s a history of open wounds caused by violence, that’s where I’m ready to focus,” Montville says. He considers the acknowledgment of victimhood as a critical first step in the healing process. “It may seem touchy-feely,” he says, “but genocide is touchy-feely.”
Since Abernathy’s arrival at CSIS, Montville says, “I’ve given responses, but I ultimately felt that Brian was the artist and I was the helper.” Faces Are Red marks the first play ever written at CSIS since its founding in 1962; Montville considers the endeavor a stretch for the center, but a stretch in the right direction. “My program has been given a great deal of leeway in exploring preventive diplomacy in various forms,” he says. “I felt very comfortable in sponsoring this exercise, even though that doesn’t mean that everyone at the center believes this is an appropriate thing to do.”
Until a few weeks ago, Montville says, none of his senior-level colleagues had even read Abernathy’s script. But now, he notes, “There’s a lot of discussion in the hallways and at meetings,” he adds. “People are getting somewhat intrigued by it.”
In mid-August, Abernathy will leave D.C. for Philadelphia, where he’s already lined up work as an artistic apprentice with the Arden Theatre Company. He’s anxiously awaiting the results of his dramatic experiment, which he’ll use to determine whether he should explore the concept of theater of reconciliation any further. In addition to handing out audience surveys, he has scheduled two post-performance discussions for audience members who wish to talk candidly about their reactions.
“The center does very important work,” Abernathy says, “but their ways of disseminating information—reports, books, conferences—are things that the average person doesn’t see or read. It’s not effective in reaching people.”CP
Faces Are Red runs July 28 to 30 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. For tickets, call (703) 218-6500.