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In War-Spoiled Theater, Freedom Takes Center Stage

An underground troupe emerges to address repression and war in a post-Hussein play.

May 05, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It looked and sounded like a production by any hip young theater company: an edgy avant-garde script, a wiry and intense cast and a stage set that looked like something out of a war zone.

The half-wrecked backdrop, though, wasn't just for dramatic effect. An Iraqi theater group staged the country's first independent postwar production Sunday in Baghdad's looted, soot-stained Al Rashid theater -- formerly a state-run institution in which only works sanctioned by the government of Saddam Hussein could be performed.

"We are happy, so happy," said director Basim Hajar, coauthor of the play, "They Passed By Here" -- a scathing critique of the Hussein regime that also carried a passionate antiwar message. "For us, this is the real meaning of freedom."

It remains to be seen, though, whether Iraqis will be able to revive what was once a flourishing cultural and artistic life.

Actors and painters, musicians and writers will have to overcome the spirit-deadening effect of decades of repression, along with the corrosive moral consequences of many artists having cooperated with the regime.

Sunday's show played to a packed house of several hundred people, even though theatergoers had to pick their way through a lobby strewn with broken glass and other debris. Walls were scorched black, and wires dangled snakelike from the ceiling.

Most of the theater's plush red seats were still intact, but the stage had been ravaged, with klieg lights stolen, heavy curtains pulled down and the wings left undraped. The bare-bones stage set played to the theme of destruction, with spindly scaffolding, a scattering of broken urns and a dim bank of battery-powered lights.

The capital is still under round-the-clock assault by looters; during the performance, U.S. Army troops patrolling near the theater fired warning shots at yet another gang of would-be thieves. Because the darkened streets remain dangerous at night, the players opted to put on a matinee.

Thrown together in just 10 days, the production draws heavily on "Caligula," Albert Camus' dramatic portrait of the cruel, perverse and megalomaniacal Roman emperor. In one scene of this loose Arabic-language adaptation, a menacing leader exhorts an exhausted, bedraggled soldier to go and fight.

The play reflected Baghdadis' still-raw trauma of seeing their city turned into a battleground. At one point, the characters, hollow-eyed, chanted in horrified unison: "War! War! War!" In another scene, a woman cradled the head of a crouching and weakened man, gently ladling water over him.

The theater company calls itself "Najeen," which means "Survivors." It has performed underground for years, staging plays in private homes or in public locales advertised only by discreet word of mouth. The 10-member cast in this production included some professional actors, but also poets, musicians and dancers affiliated with the group.

"You cannot imagine what it means for us to be here on this national stage, where everything we stand for was forbidden," said cast member Oday Rashid, who is a musician and documentary filmmaker. "Now it is ours." Hajar, author of more than a dozen banned plays, said he tried to incorporate the theme of longing for artistic freedom in this work.

During the play, one of the actors silently pieced together a plaster sculpture of a human figure, a pair of dancers clung perilously to the scaffolding and a lone musician plucked his guitar. The stage was littered with hundreds of yards of exposed film -- meant, Hajar said, as a cry against censorship.

An impromptu cast party held afterward on the darkened stage served as a joyous reunion for many in Baghdad's artistic community. They wept and embraced, asking one another how they had fared in the war.

Under Hussein, state-approved theatrical productions were usually lighthearted cabaret revues intended primarily for an audience of Baath Party elite, or else turgid fare such as "Zubeideh and the King" -- a stage adaptation of a novel by the Iraqi leader.

"I acted in official plays and movies because that was what I had to do," said Alla Hussein, one of Iraq's best-known actresses, who attended the play. "But all of us wanted to perform in works like this, and see them performed."

A sharp sense of ambivalence about the American presence in Baghdad pervaded the event. Rashid, the actor-musician, offered warm thanks to Lt. Mark Tomlinson, a New Yorker whose Army unit had helped secure the theater during a week of rehearsals.

However, Hajar, asked by a Greek TV crew what his message to the Americans was, replied: "Thank you. Now go home."

After the play's final scene, there was no electrical power to bring up the house lights, but the audience leaped to its feet for a standing ovation.

Some people cried.

It was a one-time performance. No admission was charged, and Hajar, asked how he had financed the production, smiled and turned an empty pocket inside out.

"We will keep on somehow," he said. "Now we have the most important thing that we need. There is no one to stop us from saying anything we want onstage."

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