In play about waterboarding, the actors aren’t acting
Watching someone get waterboarded is no reasonable person’s idea of a good time, but it’s an option nonetheless — for purposes more high-minded than having a good time — Thursday at Cambridge’s YMCA Theater.
“Water Board: A Play About Torture” examines the act, used by the administration of President George W. Bush to extract information from terrorism suspects and called by its officials an “enhanced interrogation technique,” in a number of ways: projected video, audio landscape, readings from historical documents and music from Basim Usmani, of Boston’s “taqwacore” punk band, Kominas.
And each of the two actors in the play will be waterboarded by the other.
“A lot of people turn away from discussion of torture because it’s too disturbing,” said playwright, director, actor and willing waterboarding victim Stephanie Skier. But to her and co-producer and actor Nadeem Mazen, that’s exactly why the play must be done: Torture has been kept largely hidden and out of a national dialogue.
The Bush administration kept its policy of torturing political prisoners obscured behind euphemism or claims of national security, and Skier noted waterboarding itself is the rare form of physical abuse that, unless discovered by an autopsy, leaves no mark on the body. When Skier and Mazen interviewed passers-by and waterboarded each other July 4 in Downtown Crossing, they found many people didn’t know what waterboarding was.
Skier and Mazen intend to expose the act to an audience who have probably never seen it done — there are YouTube videos of pundit Christopher Hitchens and others trying it — in an inevitably startling, but controlled environment. Skier assures that the worst waterboarding will be seen only in animated videos, created by Mazen, while the waterboarding suffered on stage will be the mildest kind. But it’s still a horror, and no one under 13 will be allowed in the theater. “There are whimsical elements to the show — Slip ’N Slides and bobbing for apples — that we use to juxtapose with waterboarding, and we don’t want young people to misunderstand and think this is fun,” she said.
A U.S. Marine with “Survival/Evasion/Resistance/Escape” training gave Skier waterboarding lessons, she said, and they were passed on to Mazen. In the method they’re using, victims lay face-up on a board but with their heads lower than their feet, their faces covered and then covered again by a towel upon which water is poured. Skier and Mazen aren’t tied down, and while being waterboarded they hold a large, threaded steel pipe end they drop when they can take no more. “The idea of holding something is that if you go unconscious, you drop it,” Skier said.
And the pipe end, Mazen says, “makes a nice clanging” when dropped.
In the run-up to the show, Skier and Mazen have been waterboarded over the course of eight days, anywhere from twice a day to up to 10 times. Even done “in the spirit of artistic collaboration and friendship, not in torture,” it gets to be too much, Skier said, and there will be no more before Thursday’s show. (Mazen acknowledges Skier can endure more, although he is learning to withstand it better from techniques she has shared with him. But he stressed that, in the relatively gentle manner in which they are doing it, “certainly I can say this feels awful, but I don’t think I can say I’m learning what it feels like to be tortured.”)
Skier, a Somerville resident, Fulbright scholar and Harvard-trained historian, said the bulk of the show is taken from government documents, including from tribunals held after World War II charging Japanese soldiers with torture for waterboarding Americans. But the show she describes — including conversation with the audience after the scripted portion is over — isn’t intended to be dry or dull. One government memo by Bush administration lawyer Jay Bybee takes the form of a duet.
“We add moments of levity because it’s such a grave topic. You need some lightness to be able to process the information,” she said.
“There are a set of practices being done in the name of Americans that aren’t even minorly overlapping with American values,” said Mazen, a Boston resident, MIT-educated biologist, artist and designer. “There should be a revulsion to this kind of treatment, but most people don’t even realize we do it. It necessitates an outcry.”
“Water Board: A Play About Torture,” a production of the Berlin-based Institute for Intermediate Studies, will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday at the YMCA Theater, 820 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square Cambridge. Tickets are $20 or, for students, seniors or those with low income, $8. The production is co-sponsored by and benefits Amnesty International. Click here for tickets. For information, click here or call (617) 661-9622.