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Monday, 01 September 2014 10:48

Strange bedfellows in 'Human Terrain'

Written by Steve Callahan
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Strange bedfellows in 'Human Terrain'
mustardseedtheatre.com

The Mustard Seed Theatre opens its season with a world premiere of a new work by Jennifer Blackmer.  It's called, simply, "Human Terrain," (not to be confused with the 2010 documentary film of the same name) and it's beautifully comfortable at Mustard Seed, which has a charter of examining moral questions.  There is a tension between these softest of sciences and the hard facts of military force.  Can they ever work together toward a common goal?  And who decides the goal?

Geopolitics makes for strange bedfellows.

America's effort to control and contain and, indeed, to correct nations and situations in the Middle-East has been marked by colossal blunders.   We've learned through painful hindsight that such efforts, be they diplomatic or military, might be more effective if before acting we try to understand the people of the countries involved—their cultures, their values, their social and power structures.

In light of this wisdom, beginning in 2004, the Army began what eventually was  called the Human Terrain System.  Using experts in the social sciences—anthropologists and sociologists (many drawn from academia)—they developed "cultural sensitivity training" programs.  The goal was to become capable of "culture-centric warfare."

Beginning in 2007 these "scholar warriors" were embedded in combat operations in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan.  All of this was controversial, eliciting strong reactions from the American Anthropological Association and a "Network of Concerned Anthropologists," who saw it as a violation of professional ethics.

In this play young Mabry Hoffman, with a PhD in Anthropology (and "all those 'A's"), finds herself embedded with the Army in Fallujah, Iraq's "hottest" hot-spot.  She feels that military acoutrements (carrying a weapon, being accompanied by an escort) interfere with her acceptance by the Iraqis with whom she is charged to deal.  There is a constant friction between her and her Army superior, Capt. Alford.  He's not unsympathetic, but he is aware of the ever-present danger.  Anyone—anyone—could be carrying a bomb.  A justifiable sense of paranoia pervades the entire military operation.  (Well, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that everyone's not out to get you.")

Dr. Hoffman develops a deep friendship with an Iraqi woman.  And this leads her to a terrible test of friendship vs. duty. 

Because of one compassionate action in Fallujah she may be charged with treason. The whole play is framed by an interrogation.  Time is very fluid:  we swing easily back and forth between the interrogation and the events in Fallujah.

The set, by John Stark, is beautifully simple:  great sandy columns sweeping seamlessly up from the floor clear to the sky, with a distant desert horizon.  At center a small sliding platform holds the interrogation room.  Lighting, by Michael Sullivan is fluid and effective, and there's wonderfully shocking explosion effect.  Jane Sullivan's costumes, both military and Muslim, are quite perfect.  And young Zoe Sullivan again shows herself a gifted sound designer.  (What a family!)

Director Lori Adams, who directed Deanna Jent's wonderful "Falling", draws good performances from her cast and fills the play with gripping intensity.

Melissa Gerth gives Dr. Hoffman a believable earnest sincerity, and B. Weller, as Capt. Alford, nicely captures this stressed and conflicted man.  Wendy Greenwood plays Adiliah, the Iraqi woman, with great warmth and wisdom.  I was particularly impressed with Taylor Campbell who plays a most endearing young soldier;  his soft Southern accent suggests his innocence and decency.  Antonio Mosley is utterly convincing as a young Iraqi boy caught up in the jihad;  he makes Arabic sound like his native tongue.  (Or is it?)

Dawn Campbell, as the interrogator, gets everything she can from this character, but the role is written rather two-dimensionally—simply mean-spirited and tough.  John Clark is also burdened with a caricature of a role—the vicious, bigoted soldier who just wants to "kill some towel-heads."   I don't argue that such people don't exist;  I merely say that they are just not very interesting dramatically.

And, of course, in the background there is the shadow of Dr. Hoffman's employer, the evil mega-corporation United Aerospace.

Those on the side of virtue share similar flaws, though to a lesser degree.  One can detect a faint halo 'round Dr. Hoffman's head, and her friend Adiliah is a bit too full of goodness.  There's a whiff of "the Wisdom of the East" around her.

Notwithstanding these weaknesses the play succeeds in giving us a powerful evening of drama, with a number of strong theatrical moments.  The final moment, for instance, is beautiful and surreal as the young anthropologist is slowly swathed in many yards of brilliant Muslim gown.

The old Star Trek missions were governed by a Prime Directive:  "Don't tinker with native cultures."  The New Army's directive seems to be "Don't tinker—until you understand those cultures."

This play touches on several questions in which the West fails to understand Arab cultures.  The veil, for instance.  Western feminist sensibilities would have us view it as a sign of oppression.  (I was a bit surprised to watch Mabry, a trained anthropologist embracing this attitude.)  But millions willingly choose the veil, the hijab, the burka.  As Adiliah beautifully explains to her friend, "Your sanctuary moves with you.  You are safe."   Not too long ago a generation of young American women were urged to burn their bras as symbols of oppression;  but in a month—or a year—they had second thoughts and re-embraced that curious garment.

"Human Terrain" is a good play which will be widely produced, I'm sure.  But it would benefit from a little richer marbling of virtue and flaw in some of the characters.

It plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through September 14.

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