“What Do I Know about War, a one-woman stage production by Margo Lee Sherman, has emerged as one of the divisive performances of this year’s Cairo International Experimental Theater Festival, dividing audiences and critics alike.
Dressed in baggy black clothing, wild-haired, and without makeup, Sherman rendered a collection of Iraq War vignettes taken from the lives of American veterans who have endured immense psychological and physical pain as a result of their combat service.
Sherman maintained strict adherence to the minimalist code throughout. No props, no special effects, no music – just Sherman, ranting, raving, sobbing, taking on the madness and human destruction wrought by war.
Sherman, 63, got her start in experimental drama with the Bread & Puppet Theater in New York City, where she still lives. Attending a community meeting in a small Manhattan church in March 2005, Sherman met a man who had been collecting newspaper articles about individual American tragedies related to the Iraq War, from the brutally violent to the cruelly ironic.
One article eulogized a soft-spoken soldier who was so traumatized by his war service that he hiccupped to death. Another recounted the story of an army wife who flew into a rage when her husband was deployed for a second one-year tour, storming the base commander’s office and demanding answers. Her husband suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she insists, and he hasn’t had enough time to heal. In fact he’s only just started counseling, so how can the army expect him to fight while he’s losing his mind?
Sherman spends most of her stage time dealing with casualties of the mind. The soldiers whose tales she inhabits all suffer from varying degrees of war-induced madness, from extreme paranoia and flashbacks, to the crippling, corrosive guilt that returns home with even the most sane survivors. In her hour-long performance, she assumes the voices of officers and enlisted, Bush administration supporters and dissidents from within the ranks, women and men, dead and alive. All of them, including the dead, remain trapped in the war’s routine, playing back their worst memories, alone.
The fact that all of these faces and voices are channeled through the same, intentionally non-descript actress means that viewers are less likely to prejudge the individual soldiers before their stories unfold.
Prejudices deter the kind of critical thinking that pieces like “What Do I Know about War are designed to encourage. Last week, before a mostly Egyptian audience, Sherman, a wiry figure, gave a powerful, heart-wrenching performance. She did not shy away from the bloodlust that makes war possible – one soldier recounted, “I love getting shot at, and I love shooting back, while another, who lost two friends in an ambush, admitted, “I want revenge – but she also made it clear that all aspects of war depend on dehumanization and victimization. Indeed, bloodlust itself is evidence of severe psychological trauma.
In a particularly disturbing scene, Sherman jumps around the stage screaming, “Bang bang, yer dead! Bang, yer dead, her hands in the shape of a pistol. The scene emphasizes the early indoctrination of American children into an undeniably violent world, where the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are tragically blurred.
Today’s American youth have come of age under the influence of violent television and film, the glorification of gang culture, and bloody video games.
While such an atmosphere of media violence may compel some youth to seek the real thing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority of soldiers join the military for economic and educational opportunities. No matter what their motivations, very few are able to withstand the psychological shock of combat.
Sherman presented the first incarnation of “What Do I Know about War in March 2006. In New York, Sherman has had difficulty finding audiences.
Once she performed for an audience of just one person. I asked Sherman how it felt to deliver her performance to an Arab audience; did she have any concerns about how a population so close to Iraq would react to stories of American soldiers?
“I didn’t really worry about it, she said, “I met an Egyptian man at a show in New York and he told me about the festival, and I said, I have to do it.
She continued, “I thought it would be a good way to bridge the gaps between our cultures, and to show that we’re not all like Bush and company.
Only about half of last week’s audience remained until the end of Sherman’s performance. Expecting to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab world with a play about American soldiers may be a bit far flung, but a small crowd of audience members did gather at the end of the show to congratulate Ms. Sherman. One of them said, “You’re very brave.