Pittsburgh’s City Theatre hosts the world premiere of Stephen Belber’s extraordinary new play, We Are Among Us. The play explores the lingering effects of war via the conflict between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Specifically, Belber uses one night in rural Afghanistan as a touchstone to trace how war ripples out far beyond national borders and defines timelines.
The play looks back eight years. Military contractor Laura (Lisa Velten Smith) bore witness to the torture of an Afghan man who was being interrogated, then died–an event that gets reignited thanks to the investigate journalism of Shar (Jo Mei). Shar is tough and unrelenting, an attitude that’s thoughtfully reinforced by costume designer Sarita Fellows who has Shar in a leather jacket and olive-colored jeans, a military invocation. While Shar derides the military, she too is intent on interrogation. She makes people uncomfortable in her quest to uncover the truth and make a journalistic name for herself, an inquiry that creates new ripples. As a Vietnamese-American, she also represents a lingering effect of military conflict. Her personal narrative has been shaped as an adoptee from war-ravaged Vietnam.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt maintains an undercurrent of tension by wisely choosing to keep all five actors on stage throughout the production. Center stage is marked by set designer Narelle Sissons’ enormous and slightly elevated bright orange circle. Those not on center stage are perched on chairs that, if connected with a piece of string, would form an imaginary square around the perimeter of the circular set. Sissons’ visionary set design works on multiple levels. The set itself visually manifests the aphorism of a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, which is an appropriate metaphor for how each character feels. Khadija (Nilanjana Bose) is an outsider, an Afghan refugee living in America. Laura’s college-age son, Beau (Eric Wiegand), feels alienated from life and his mother, an alienation that ultimately finds its headwaters at that night in Afghanistan eight years ago. The boomingly bright orange circle is also reminiscent of a bullseye, a militaristic image that trains focus. Characters take their place in the crosshairs with the always watchful eyes of the other characters silently surrounding them.
To Campbell-Holt’s credit, the continual onstage presence doesn’t become a distraction. The actors on the perimeter are kept hovering in low light by lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski. Sissons also chooses to mount a canted square canvas in front of the stage that is initially green. This wall-mounted square visually reinforces the invisible square around the circular stage made by the actors and their chairs. In a surprising but effective turn, the edges of the square light up, allowing the simple set to transform in color. The offset square also reinforces the askew nature of the play’s world – and the broader world.
Afghan refugee, Khadija, has been in the U.S. for five years. She’s a bit starstruck by the U.S. and her own subject position as a Whole Foods employee in La Jolla, California. She’s proud that she can direct customers to the spirulina shelf. Khadija is a reminder of the integral role immigrants play in our economy. Her pride at being an employee of “my beloved Whole Foods” is almost shocking. It’s an unskilled job, a stopping point, not necessarily an aspirational endpoint by U.S. standards. Khadija and Beau are similar in age, and he’s a stark contrast as a U.S. born product of white privilege. He works at Petco in suburban Virginia and not surprisingly, describes it as “dumb.” He’s very aware of the perceived inferiority of his position when he yells at his mother, “I work at a pet store, but I’m not f***ing challenged.”
The most underdeveloped of the five characters is Taylor (Kyle Haden), former Special Ops. He tortured the Afghan man during the interrogation with the goal of determining if he was collaborating with the Taliban. Taylor maintains he was just doing his job and takes a wider lens beyond that incident to focus on the broader good they did, like building a school. When Laura recounts the night from eight years ago, it’s hard not to be disgusted by Taylor’s callousness as she describes him drinking “blue Gatorade” during a “beating break.” However, Belber never lets us slide into easy judgments. He repeatedly shows us how the truth keeps unraveling and reconfiguring as new puzzle pieces are added, and it’s all more slippery and complicated than we think.
Like an intricate spider’s web, threads of varying thickness connect all of the characters to war. One can’t help but pause and consider how our own place in the universe has invariably been shaped by military conflict. We are all products of war; we are all among us.
Learn more about this incredible world premiere and purchase tickets online at City Theatre’s site.
Photography Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th Century American Drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews