The crowd at Amnesty International Theater Project's "Torture Watch" is likely to be more aware of human rights violations around the globe than your average joe. But John Sullivan, who's presenting the evening of readings and performances with wife Shelli Rae, doesn't mind if most of the seats are filled by Amnesty members and supporters. "Even though we're probably singing to the choir," says Sullivan, "at least the choir may learn a new riff on that old song, maybe even sing the old song better."
Still, Sullivan hopes the audience will contain an unconverted member or two. Torture rarely surfaces as an issue in America. To most of us, it's something that happens "over there." And the idea that the United States is capable of such brutality is brushed away as a conspiracy theory.
At "Torture Watch," Jean Marie Arrigo, whose father, a former U.S. military technical adviser to the South Korean government, taught torture techniques during the Korean War, will read from her memoirs and share an interview with her father taped just last March. Works by political writers Carolyn Forché and Ariel Dorfman will be dramatized. And Sullivan will deliver a satire on the trade of torture instruments based on a real-life source. "They were actually advertising" torture, Rae warns. "It's humorous but not humorous."
The evening will also include staged readings of two Harold Pinter plays, Mountain Language (1989) and The New World Order (1991), presented by volunteers from the Amnesty International Theater Project. British theater critics declared Pinter paranoid when he began penning plays about government corruption and torture.
"Really, the Pinter play Mountain Language ties directly into the situation of the Kurds in Turkey," says Sullivan. "As 'mountain Turks,' their cultural practices and language were outlawed and their political and cultural leaders were jailed, beaten and often executed, but more often, just left to rot."
In the play, set in a prison for political dissidents in an unknown country, a group of women visits their incarcerated husbands and sons. The guards warn the women that their "mountain language" has been forbidden; they must speak the language of the state or risk punishment.
Pinter's New World Order borrows its title from George Bush's January 1991 State of the Union address. In it, a man sits bound and gagged in a chair while two Americans discuss what they're going to do to him. Is this scene a product of Pinter's paranoia, as critics have claimed? Rae doesn't think so. "Once a person becomes aware of an evil and unjust situation where people are being tortured," she asks, "can you ever go back to closing your eyes?"
Adds Sullivan, "Who could have imagined the terrorist prison at Guantanamo? For all we as citizens know, our own nation may be practicing torture as a covert aspect of the war against terror."
Following the performances, Amnesty members will field questions from the audience and discuss the subject of torture. Rae stresses that the event won't be an easy night out. "It's not a night of theater and entertainment," she says. "People should come to open their minds."