Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see two plays in Washington, D.C.—both contemporary, both superbly acted, and both leaving the audience with plenty to think about. If, as playwright Tony Kushner says, in theater, “you discover things you can’t afford to countenance in waking life,” these plays were journeys of simultaneous discovery and self-discovery.
First up was Theater J’s The Body of an American, by Dan O’Brien, winner of the 2014 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play. The title sounds like the lead of a news story—one whose predicate you may not want to know. The play is a metadrama about O’Brien’s real-life relationship with award-winning journalist and photographer Paul Watson (played by Eric Hissom).
Watson took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the desecration of the body of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland in Mogadishu in 1993, after two U.S. Black Hawk attack helicopters were shot down. In large part as a result of the public outrage at this event, U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia. Both before and since, his pen and camera have recorded an untold number of unspeakable acts around the world.
How does being witness to so much brutality—so much evil—affect a person? O’Brien (Thomas Keegan) comes from a presumably cosseted life by comparison. Why does he seek Watson’s insights regarding the world’s dirtiest acts? As you might expect, he’s not without his own deep scars. He may not have Watson’s post-traumatic stress disorder, but he is in a similar struggle to understand his own life’s significance.
In the several days before Watson shot that famous picture, he tells O’Brien, much worse atrocities had taken place in Mogadishu. But they weren’t photographed, and the military denied they’d occurred. But with Cleveland’s fate, the proof was in his camera. He believes the American reaction taught a nascent Al Qaeda the propaganda value of a dramatic, well-documented moment, and fear of a repeat contributed to President Clinton’s refusal to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Eight years later, 9/11.
The picture has affected him at the personal level, as well. He’s haunted by a voice that came to him as he was about to click the shutter of his camera. It was Cleveland’s voice, he thinks, though he knows Cleveland was already dead. It said, “Do this, and I will own you forever.” Him, O’Brien, all of us.
The Body of an American hews to the trend of short, if not sweet, productions. It’s 90 minutes with no intermission at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC, through May 22. Box office.
Tomorrow a review of Disgraced, now at Arena Stage.