Nothing is harder to do in the theater than violence — suggested or otherwise — but a few gifted writers over the years have shown the ability to strike real fear into the hearts of an audience.
I still remember the threat of terrible, imminent violence that I felt at at Mike Nichols’ incredible production of David Rabe’s “Streamers” in the 1970s and I had a similar response over the weekend at The Flea Theater production of “A Letter from Omdurman” by Jeffrey M. Jones.
The new play — running through May 27 — is not a piece of realism like Rabe’s Vietnam drama, but a mix of surrealism, history and drama that explores war and torture through the ages, with an emphasis on Western attempts to dominate the Middle East and people of color everywhere.
Jones mixes together accounts of the life of Wyatt Earp, some of young Winston Churchill’s military adventures in the Middle East, and our own disastrous involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are times when the play is not easy to follow because Jones uses overlapping dialogue (and time periods) to create a collage of historical disaster, but the technique forces a viewer to pay very close attention to the material which pushes it deeper into our consciousness.
“A Letter from Omdurman” also explores what is apparently a tendency toward sadism in almost everyone. A powerful section of the piece deals with the notorious Yale experiments by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.
Milgram set up a situation in which volunteers agreed to ask test subjects questions — if the answers were wrong, the volunteer administered electric shocks to the unseen (and actually non-existent) test taker. The voltage was steadily increased and nearly all of the volunteers kept upping the voltage as they were instructed to do (despite the recordings of screams they heard).
Milgram was inspired by Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s testimony that the Holocaust was caused by people who were just following orders. The Yale doctor learned that this was not a uniquely German trait.
Jones serves up a scene in which U.S. military personnel are trained in weaponry where their answers to questions and reactions to the violence caused by their test weapons plays out like a real-life scene from Milgram’s laboratory.
Four extraordinary young actors — Matt Barbot, Wilton Young, Will Turner and Veracity Butcher (who are all members of the Flea’s resident company, The Bats) — play a multitude of roles with great emotional force and chilling realism in director Page Burkholder’s vivid staging in a claustrophobic space.
“A Letter from Omdurman” is very tough stuff — you hear more than a few things you might wish you hadn’t — but it is also an unforgettable theatrical experience that reminds us of our own role in the continuum of racism and military violence.