Four high school students arrange themselves in front of the class. One of them has taken a black hoodie and put it over her head like a bag. The other two stand, fingers holding the invisible trigger of a gun, held close against their eyes—which squint through an imaginary scope. The fourth girl stands next to them, turning a blind eye, striking a pose of indifference.
You know when real people start to care about other people’s politics? When other people put a gun to their head.
This quote from Blood and Gift lies on the desk next to them—inspiration for their tableau.
As a new Teaching Artist for TimeLine’s Living History Education Program, I was anxious about this residency. The Living History program goes into Chicago Public Schools all over the city. We teach students how to approach a play—how to do the work of an actor, director or dramaturg and, in turn, foster creativity across disciplines and ignite discussion about the themes and issues within the script. Many of these students have never seen a play before.
I look at the students’ tableau. It’s incredible how ageless a person becomes with their head covered. Where there once was a boisterous 17-year-old girl there now sits a nameless victim. I have seen this image before. Since the attacks of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Since Abu Ghraib. I have seen this image over and over again. I wonder if those same images lurk in these students’ minds. Are they old enough to remember them? Suddenly I feel out of my depth.
There is a moment of silence from the class of 17-year-olds, but barely. For the most part they are nonplussed. They snicker. A few girls giggle.
“Who has the power in this scene?” We ask the students.
Some snorts of laughter. They point.
The people with the guns. Obviously.
“Right. Now who do you think they are?”
“Okay. And who do you think the Americans would be shooting here?”
“Remember this is a line from the play,” I caution. The students stare back at me, nodding. My tableau actors are wavering, trigger fingers sagging, turning back into their 17-year-old selves.
“What were we doing for Afghanistan in the ’80s?” I ask.
“Bringing them weapons?” One boy remembers. I nod.
There is a moment when this sinks in. Another boy scowls, his brow creased.
“But wait.” He says. “I thought we don’t like the Afghans. We’re against them, right?”
When I first read it, I was scared of Blood and Gifts. I found it hard. Cold. War made in offices and men turned into chess pawns. I was afraid to have my first teaching residency with this play—a play whose history seemed like it would take a lifetime of study and four PhD’s to fully grasp, a play many of our patrons confess to finding daunting and complex. I am not a scholar of history. I felt unqualified to weigh in on, let alone instruct, anything so rooted in political history. But suddenly, in that classroom, I understood how desperately a play like this is needed. Because for people like me, who need the human element—the gun to the head in order to grasp other people’s politics —this play is the difference between ignorance and curiosity.
In the play, the character Saeed says, “A man without history cannot lead.” Every day we live our history. And whether we like it or not the history of generations before us carries into our lives. The least we can do is know it.
These teenagers did not know that we had called the Afghans our allies during the Soviet-Afghan conflict. And while a 50-minute class period is nowhere near enough time to unpack just how messy a term like that becomes when war is on the table, in one moment, with one line from one play they saw the fragility of their own preconceptions.
This curiosity is something I believe the Living History Program offers students. But it is the students, in turn, who offer the courage to ask questions like, “We’re against them, right? Why did we do that? Then why are we fighting?”
I don’t have these answers. The play, I think, doesn’t have these answers. It asks questions. Questions that are seemingly small but somehow keep folding back on themselves. Questions that could lead you to leave the play sighing, “nothing ever changes.”
But I believe it is our students who can do the changing. And for them, this questioning is vital. This play is vital. For those who are not old enough to remember the ’80s and ’90s this play may be the first line they draw from their own lives into that history. And maybe then, for even just one student, everything changes.