Through Feb. 18
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In “4,380 Nights,” a gutsy and well-crafted work by D.C. playwright Annalisa Dias, one man’s nightmarish story as a longtime Guantanamo detainee is relayed in unflinching detail.
As the audience files into the ARK, Signature Theatre’s more intimate black box space, Ahmad Kamal, the extraordinary actor playing prisoner Malik Essaid, is seated onstage, shackled and wearing the requisite prison-issue orange jumpsuit. A white skullcap instantly identifies him as Muslim. Over the next two hours of Dias’ raw yet poetic play, sure-handedly directed by Kathleen Akerley, its author gives a frank and timely look at power.
For 12 years (or 4,380 nights), Essaid sits rotting in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the offshore U.S. prison in Cuba used to house Muslim militants and suspected terrorists captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9-11. During his imprisonment, Essaid, who has been assumed guilty but never tried or convicted, sees no way out. Eventually, hope comes in the person of American lawyer Bud Abramson (the excellent Michael John Casey) offering pro bono legal services to an initially (understandably) distrustful Essaid.
Over years, the pair meet periodically always with Guantanamo military guards within earshot. It’s here that trust and a friendship develop between lawyer and client, and Essaid’s story unfolds. His peripatetic youth was spent avoiding conscription into Algeria’s civil war, ferreting out work in Europe, and a spiritual quest in South Asia. His life has been one of hardship and uncertainty, but he was never a terrorist. In truth he was hit over the head by Afghanis and sold to U.S. forces who whisked him off to the notorious Bagram prison before dumping him in Guantanamo.
Essaid’s seemingly endless incarceration (which his lawyer describes as illegal, unconstitutional and not what America is really about) is long, meandering and frustrating. (It’s no wonder the charming Essaid’s favorite word is “bullshit”). He is subjected to the most barbaric of interrogation techniques. Director Akerley realistically stages the physical beatings and sexual assault at the hands of his assigned captor Luke Harrison (a wonderfully odious Rex Daugherty).
The spare, fluorescent-lit room where counsel and client meet across a stainless-steel table, designed by Elizabeth Jenkins, is backed by a curtain of hanging linked chains. Beyond lies a fiery landscape. Sounds — plaintive, distant and jarring — are provided by Neil McFadden.
Spanning time and space, Dias’ work intertwines other story lines. A 19th century Algeria-set tale involves a loathsome historical figure, French military commander Colonel Aimable Pelissier (Daugherty again), who ruthlessly incinerates an entire native tribe and an Algerian Berber leader named El Hadj El Kaim (again Kamal) who ambivalently plays a part in assisting Pelissier with the massacre of his own people.
There’s another intriguing thread. The Woman (an impassioned Lynette Rathnam), or the voice of Algeria, costumed in a revealing satin evening gown, performs gloriously penned accounts of colonization, war and suffering visited upon her country over the ages. She is sometimes silenced or threatened by her audience, the Man (again Casey), a smoking jacket-clad metaphor for the West. The Woman comments on the greatness of cities like Baghdad and Carthage and gives a nod to indigenous people who once lived along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
While the first half of Dias’ two-act play is less than crystal clear, it comes together powerfully and memorably after intermission. “4,380 Nights” is presented as part of the 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival.