I wanted people to be immersed in the subject of capital punishment, says Dina Mousawi

I, wanted, people, to, be, immersed, in, the, subject, of, capital, punishment, says, Dina MousawiDina has directed Intezaar, a play that seeks to highlight why the moratorium on death penalty needs reinstatement

The death penalty has been a controversial subject since the moratorium on it was lifted in the wake of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar.

Rights activists have long called for reinforcement of the moratorium, arguing that the flawed criminal justice system needs to be overhauled first before any capital punishment is handed out.

In many cases, prisoners who are sentenced to death are either innocent, not given a fair trial, should not be hanged under international laws or their crime does not call for them to be punished with death.

And then there’s the argument that the state does not and should not have the right to deprive someone of their life.

It was in this context that Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a not-for-profit human rights law firm, in collaboration with Ajoka Theatre, Complicite and Highlight Arts, recently staged an interactive theatre piece at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. The aim was to highlight and create awareness among the youth about the lacunas in the criminal justice system, the impact the anticipation of being hanged can have on prisoners and their heirs, and how they look for even the slightest moments of joy in their otherwise uncertain lives.

Bringing the stories of prisoners on death-row to life

Aptly titled Intezaar, the play was directed by Dina Mousawi of Complicite, produced by Ryan Van Winkle of Highlight Arts and written by Ajoka’s Shahid Nadeem. The play was based on actual cases of prisoners on death row that JPP was helping; the names of the characters were changed.

Bringing such a sensitive topic to theatre must entail a lot of research and emotional strength. Talking to Images about Intezaar’s subject matter, Dina shared: “It’s an intense subject. But Ryan, the team and I spent 10 days together in one room back in November looking at the research material, case studies of prisoners on death row in the past and present, they looked at characters and started to stage a scene.”

The play was presented in a courtyard of the college as an interactive piece

The play was presented in a courtyard of the college as an interactive piece

“In a theatre performance, you don’t want to make it all depressing so you have to have light moments. Actors had to give it their 100 percent. It was quite difficult; there were often stirring moments during rehearsals but there’s a fine line; you can’t make it comical.”

“It was a riveting experience because you get to see the actors and the company go on that journey from thinking that there must be justice and people must be hanged to realising that there are innocent people caught up in this system that doesn’t really work.” — Ryan Van Winkle

For producer Ryan, it was an interesting journey to go on with the actors and see them change their perception of capital punishment and injustice.

“It was interesting to work with the cast who may have never thought about the subject before. I grew up in the US so I’ve gone through the journey of whether it’s right or wrong, thinking about whether the state should be killing someone.”

“It was a riveting experience because you get to see the actors and the company go on that journey from thinking that there must be justice and people must be hanged to realising that there are innocent people caught up in this system that doesn’t really work.”

Among the inmates whose stories and cases the play highlighted was a painter, a composer and singer, a teacher, but there were those also who were sentenced to death, but were not eligible to be hanged under international laws: a physically handicapped, a schizophrenic, a mentally challenged, a juvenile.

The play showed the miserable conditions prisoners on death-row have been in for years

The play showed the miserable conditions prisoners on death-row have been in for years

Fahad Hashmi, who’s been performing with Ajoka for a year and portrayed a mentally challenged inmate in the play, shared his experience of acting out such a subject.

“I thought it would be a regular, easy play. But then I was sent for research to jails, met prisoners, saw the circumstances they were in. I observed the character I was to play. The way they were addressed and kept in the jail had an impact on me. I decided I’d feel the play and not just act it out. I lived the character.”

Story-telling goes interactive

The interactive theatre performance was unique in that it was staged out in the courtyard of the college, surrounded by the audience who could face the actors while they performed.

This is a concept unusual for Pakistan. For Dina, it brought some challenges with it: from lighting to making the actors comfortable to directing outdoors.

“The actors really believed in the project and were very supportive and willing to try anything. It was very different for me because I’m not used to working outdoors in the evening and a lot of logistical things were jarring for me. It was also difficult for the lighting designer to light the show that was going to be held in the evening.”

“There was traffic in the university; a lot of noise. I had to get the actors to be comfortable with that and be aware of that. They’re used to performing on a stage in front of an audience. So it was hard for them this time. We had to constantly remind ourselves that there’s an audience around.”

So why did they choose to stage the play in such a manner?

Dina says the theatre audience in Pakistan is not used to interactive performances, which was one of the reasons she wanted to do it. Also, because it has more influence than a performance on a stage.

“After the APS attack in Peshawar, I thought the death penalty was right and those responsible should be killed. But after performing in this play and going through the research, I realised that only the poor and helpless get caught. The justice system is in a sad state. The investigator writes something in the report, lawyers say another thing and the judge does something completely different. So the entire system has to be reformed.” — Fahad Hashmi

“I wanted them to experience something different. Another reason was that when you go to a theatre, sit and watch a play, you are removed from the story. You watch it as a means of entertainment. With this, I wanted to bring the subject matter to people’s laps. I wanted them to be immersed in the subject, become a part of the piece. And I think they did feel that. This medium has more impact,” says Dina.

Ryan adds: “In a democracy we’re all complicit. We all sanction these things. So we wanted to engage people and bring them in to the experience because we are involved in the experience in real life. Our silence is our complicity. That’s why we decided to do an interactive piece. I usually work with this model at Highlight Arts; it surprises you, makes you think. Otherwise, a theatre performance of such a subject can quickly become a lecture.”

Fahad had never performed an interactive piece before. It was a challenge for him that there was audience around him.

“This model is meant for shaking, moving people. I haven’t done this kind of theatre before. But Dina’s direction helped. The crowd focused on where the voice was coming from. People felt the performances through this concept.”

He adds that performing such on such subjects in a society like Pakistan’s is very difficult, but it needs to happen more often because this has the potential to sensitise and move the audience about topics not discussed openly.

“It was difficult to develop the feel of this play; it took over a month. We’re from a society that thinks the death penalty is right for a murderer. It’s a very common mentality, changing this approach towards capital punishment took time and eventually we did it,” Hashmi said about the challenges that the play brought for him.

A dash of comic relief

One would imagine that a play about the death penalty and emotion would be depressing and bring the audience to tears. While it did that and quite visibly impacted the crowd gathered around, the performances did have lighter comic instances between prisoners and moments of song and dance while they waited for the announcement of their fate.

“You have to give the audience moments of light-heartedness otherwise they will go home crying and feeling depressed. In the prisons also, the inmates sometimes did sing and dance and entertain themselves,” Dina explained the reason behind including humour in such a script.

Each character was convincingly portrayed by actors from Ajoka Theatre

Each character was convincingly portrayed by actors from Ajoka Theatre

Dina has earlier directed a group of Syrian refugee women in Beirut who had never acted before. It was for a piece about their migration experience. She’s also worked on the Greek tragedy with another group of Syrian women, so handling such sensitive subjects was nothing new for her, so she was aware of the sensibilities involved in a play about capital punishment.

“Capital punishment is a tricky subject and from what I’ve learnt, in Pakistan it needs to be reformed. We want to promote and call for the moratorium and for cracks in the system to be fixed. And while the cracks are there, injustices are happening, which isn’t fair.” — Dina Mousawi

The play was meant change mindsets about the death penalty. For Fahad Hashmi, the play did what it intended to.

“After the APS attack in Peshawar, I thought the death penalty was right and those responsible should be killed. But after performing in this play and going through the research, I realised that only the poor and helpless get caught. The justice system and police system are in a sad state. The investigator writes something in the report, lawyers say another thing and the judge does something completely different. So the entire system has to be reformed,” he added.

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