From March 12 to 15, 2009, La MaMa E.T.C., in association with Actors without Borders-ITONY, will present the U.S. premiere of “Baghdadi Bath” by Jawad al-Assadi, Iraq’s best-known playwright and recipient of the Prince Claus Award for his dedication to freedom of cultural expression. “Baghdadi Bath” (in Arabic, “Hammam Baghdadi”) is set in a Turkish bath in Baghdad, where two bus drivers come to relax and talk about life in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion. The play is somewhat Beckettian and a thoughtful portrayal of the everyday horror of surviving in a war zone. It presents the suffering of Iraqis engulfed in a country ravaged by violence, corruption and despair. The piece is directed by Zishan Ugurlu, the founding director of Actors without Borders-ITONY and a resident actor and director at La MaMa.
Playwright Jawad al-Assadi has spent 25 years as an expatriate, living in various Arab countries, working with theatrical groups and contributing to the development of progressive thought and dialogue in the region. His writings include poetry, essays and several plays, which have been translated into English, Russian and French, including “Forget Hamlet,” “The Bench” and “Women of War.” He received the Dutch-sponsored 2004 Prince Claus Award for his dedication to freedom of cultural expression. The jury particularly cited al-Assadi’s activism in the struggle for freedom of thought and cultural expression both in Iraq and beyond.
Al-Assadi is one of the most authoritative, ground-breaking experimental theater artists in the Arab world and believes that theater can contribute to fundamental social awareness. He fled Sadam Hussein’s Iraq but returned after the fall of the dictator, judging that the new nation would be more hospitable, and founded the short-lived Gilgamesh Arts Center in Baghdad. Stunned by the brutality and panic among the Iraqi people, al-Assadi moved to Beirut and established the Babel Theater there, where his play, “Women Sexophone,” debuted in December, 2007. He has been quoted as saying, “I personally don’t think about geography….Baghdad exists inside me, and Iraq exists in my soul and spirit, wherever I go it goes, and where I am, it’s here. So I don’t have a geographic problem.”
“Baghdadi Bath” is a play of two Iraqi brothers who work as bus drivers on a route between Baghdad and Damascus, which includes some of the world’s most perilous thoroughfares. Hostage-taking, stealing and executions are daily occurrences on their route. The persistent helplessness and suffering of the Iraqi people is embodied in their misfortunes under both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the American occupation. In the privacy of a steam room, they deliberate on their lives before and after the U.S. invasion, opening their hearts and exploring their repressed memories. What emerges is a picture of the wrenching everyday horror of surviving in a war zone. Ultimately, there is a tragic ending: the brothers are victimized while transporting a political candidate back into Iraq from a neighboring country.
The playwright’s brother, Abdullah, was executed by a government firing squad in 1981. Jawad, who had mostly avoided his country’s bloodshed, wrote this play in 2005. Two years later, life imitated art when his other brother and nephew were killed while driving a bus.
An audience member, who saw the play in Beirut, commented in a published report, “You can feel the Arab bleeding and Iraqi bleeding in particular, regretfully. He gives you the real picture of what is happening over there because we cannot see it. It’s portrayed in a very simple way.”
A Beirut production of this play, directed by the author, was performed last month by two Syrian actors. The La MaMa production will be performed by two Arabic speaking actors, Danny Boushebel and Mohammad Jamil Dagman. Both are NY-based. Subtitles will be provided through video projection using the English translation by Nada Saab and Robert Myers.
La MaMa’s Annex Theater will be configured into an intimate setting between the audience and the actors. Water elements will be used within a transparent bath house. Although al-Assadi cannot attend the NY production, it will be splendid opportunity for NY audiences to learn about his work, which was previously limited to people with specialized knowledge of contemporary Arab theater. There have been two staged readings, one at Vassar College and one at Dartmouth, both produced by New York Theater Workshop, but no productions here to-date.
Director Zishan Ugurlu asserts, “We are living in a world in which almost everything has lost its sense of reality, at least that’s how I feel. Everything looks like some video game that’s been created by people who believe that violence and war are also the best material for entertainment. As members of the ‘wealthy’ society, we fail to hold reality in mind. We only feel empathy. We share the images of ruins with cute graphics of weather.” She explains her vision for the production, stating, “I want to share the idea that when we watch the pain of others, we watch from the safe side. Images and stories from the media create the false illusion that we understand the pain of others.” She wishes to draw a distinction between the intimacy of the play the detachment of impersonal war stories. She adds that the brothers of the play are, to her, like iconic figures from religious books or from the world of Beckett.
Zishan Ugurlu has been working in NY as a theater artist since 1995. She has directed La MaMa productions of “Until the Next Whirl” by Rumi (1996), “Watershed” and “Serious At All” by Tom Soper (1997), “The Last Supper” by Lars Noren (2004), “Request Programme” by Franz Xaver Kroetz (2005), “The Father” by Strindberg (2008), “Temptation” by Vaclav Havel (2008), “Blood on the Cat’s Neck” by R.W. Fassbinder (2006), “Operetta” by Witold Gombrowicz, featuring Judith Malina (2005), “Blood Wedding” by Lorca (2004) and “Big Love” by Charles L. Mee (2004). For the last six years, she has designed all the shows she has directed. Ugurlu graduated from Columbia University with MFA degree in Acting and holds a PhD in Theater. Presently, she is an assistant professor at Eugene Lang College of The New School for Liberal Arts. She is the recipient of prestigious Fox Foundation Actor Fellowship, bestowed by Theater Communication Group. She is a member of La MaMa’s Great Jones Rep and has performed leading roles in its productions, including Helen of Troy in “The Trojan Women” directed by Andrei Serban and composed by Elizabeth Swados.
Ugurlu is founding Artistic Director of Actors without Borders-ITONY. The mission of the company is to introduce American audiences to “The Other.” The troupe’s name is an acronymic dedication to Genji Ito (1946-2001) the late beloved La MaMa musician and composer. In 2004, the group debuted at La MaMa with the American premiere of “Last Supper,” a family drama by Lars Noren (who is widely regarded as Sweden’s Eugene O’Neill), directed by Ugurlu. Critic Stan Richardson (Nytheatre.com) wrote, “Watching this play is like watching your house slowly catch fire….Director Zishan Ugurlu and her extraordinarily sexy cast bring his words to vivid life and the result is terrifically funny and blindingly painful….Ugurlu’s direction is so sensitive that the production feels untouched by human hands.”
The play, translated by Nada Saab and Robert Myers, appeared in Performing Arts Journal in 2008. Ms. Saab is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and Arabic literature at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. She teaches language, literature and drama and specializes in Sufi literature. Mr. Myers is a playwright based in New York and Beirut. He is the author of “Atwater: Fixin’ to Die,” “The Lynching of Leo Frank,” “Dead of Night: The Execution of Fred Hampton,” and a number of other plays. His play, “Mesopotamia,” about Gertrude Bell and the British occupation of Iraq, received a reading at Arena Stage in March. He has written about theater for The New York Times, PAJ and other publications and is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut. (www.robert-myers.com).
Performance are March 12-15, 2009 at La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan. The performance schedule is Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 PM; matinees are on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $25 and $20 for seniors and students. The box office number is (212) 475-7710; online ticketing is available at www.lamama.org.