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DRONE: Testimonies & Music @ the Veteran Arts Triennial & Summit

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

Reflections on presenting DRONE on the eve of the 20th Anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq for an audience of veterans

With photos by Gabrielle Vigueira & Andrea Assaf

In the early years of the Iraq war, I was surprised and inspired by an interview with a man named Aaron Hughes, a young veteran who had recently returned from Iraq determined to speak out against the war, to tell the truth of what was happening on the ground, the truth of militarism and its atrocities. That man went on to co-found an organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War, later re-named About Face, and engage in decades of peace work, in the U.S., Iraq, and beyond. That first interview was a ray of hope in bleak times, and I have thought of it often since. So I was very moved when Anthony Torres Jr., a veteran and performing artist, Executive Director of the Combat Hippies, reached out to me with an invitation to share my work on the DRONE project at the Veteran Arts Summit & Triennial: Surviving the Long Wars -- an event co-organized by Aaron Hughes -- on the weekend of the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The work we shared at the Triennial, DRONE: Testimonies & Music, is a very challenging piece to share in the context of a veteran gathering. It is full of emotional triggers, explicit descriptions and hard-hitting commentary about the violence of war, and our complicity in civilian deaths. Most of the text is based on actual testimonies by survivors and witnesses of U.S. drone strikes -- which I re-wrote into multi-voiced poetry, and with my collaborators, perform with music. Some of the text is fictionalized, when I imagine what Survivors might say to a drone pilot, if they could speak to one; or perhaps more accurately, what I imagine I would say... In a convening designed to face the horrors of war, designed to gather U.S. military veterans together with artists of Middle Eastern and Native American ancestry, it was a brave curatorial choice that, even after, I am rather amazed by.

I was joined by an extraordinary ensemble of performers: actors Ashley Wilkerson and Anu Yadav, vocalists Lubana Al Quntar and Aida Shahghasemi, and multi-instrumentalist Zafer Tawil. (You can learn more about these artists by reading our Digital Program.) In addition to their virtuosity as performers, they each gave deeply of themselves in the process, as all the artists in the DRONE project do. In the dialogue after our performance, which was facilitated by the wise and wonderful Kim Pevia, an audience member asked about the process of preparing the actors for this kind of work. My response was that, for me as the writer, I have researched and carried these stories for so long that I actually feel better when I speak them -- when I share the weight of knowing these real stories with audiences, 100+ at a time. But I know it's not the same to ask an actor to embody this text, these stories -- to feel them, to express them, to carry them home.

Then I think of something actor/writer/director Nick Slie said to me once, after seeing a play I'd directed -- Speed Killed My Cousin by Linda Parris-Bailey. He said, it's a hard ride, but if people live with this reality every day, then the least I can do is sit with it for 90 minutes in a theatre. And I would add, if the U.S. perpetrates this level of violence in the world, every day, then the least that I can do as a U.S. citizen is to grapple with my responsibility in it, and ask what we can do to stop it.

Creating work about war and trauma raises all kinds of questions. What does it mean to use my access to a microphone to amplify the voices of people who have given public testimony, but who have not necessarily given permission for their words to be used in art, and may never know that art exists? What do we risk when we present artistic work that can be triggering, when we know that people who have trauma and have lived through war may be in the audience -- or even in the ensemble? Is it enough to tell these stories and raise these voices, and if not, how do we organize to move from raising awareness to action?

In addition to powerful and sometimes provocative art work, there were sessions at the Triennial that offered space for reflection and embodied practice, such as the Drone Stories Embroidery Circle (pictured above) -- artist Sabba S. Elahi’s embroidery project to memorialize the names of civilians, especially women and children, who have been killed by U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. The Triennial also included a wonderful array of poets and performers, particularly Middle Eastern and Native American artists, and veteran artists. The poetry itself offered inspiration and solace, as I believe music does -- space to grieve and imagine new futures at the same time -- such as the work of one of my favorite contemporary poets, Dunya Mikhail, who read on the first night at the Residues and Rebellions Exhibit.

The Veteran Arts Summit organizers were very mindful of the potential need for audience support, and worked with us to prepare mental health and wellness practitioners who were on call during and after our performance. In addition, Kim Pevia (pictured below) offered support to our ensemble, and co-facilitated a closing with me at the Summit grounded in creative practice and ceremony. We created a releasing ceremony with the group: everyone wrote for themselves what they will take home, and what they were ready to put down or leave behind. Kim, quite spontaneously and beautifully, then announced that she would take the notes of things we're leaving behind to her Elder's Circle on the Lumbee reservation in North Carolina, and burn them -- to transform and release that energy to the sky.

The Summit concluded with an Iraq War Memorial Activation -- a vigil and silent march, with participants carrying roses to the shore of Lake Michigan, to honor the 4,500 U.S. service members and over 1 million Iraqis who were killed as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And how many more in the two decades that have followed, lost to suicide, sectarian violence, civil conflict, drone strikes... in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and all the countries plagued by the so-called "global war on terror"? Prior to the march, Aaron Hughes (pictured below holding his young daughter in his arms) told the story of a labor organizers in Iraq protesting the U.S. take-over of civil services that was causing the community to lose clean water, and how brave the workers were to stand up for their rights in the face of the same military power that had destabilized their country. He was joined by the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, in talking about how much is left to do, and the importance of allyship in working toward restorative justice.

What was inspiring about presenting our work on the DRONE project in this context was that we were surrounded, and embraced, by people who were actively working on healing trauma through creative practice, and actively working on facing themselves, and the consequences of their own actions, or inaction. In the process of building a play about complicity and Moral Injury, responsibility and survivorship -- we were able to share work-in-progress with humans who are actually confronting all of those things, in real time -- talking about it, feeling it, making art from that place, building community, and taking action.

And in the midst of all this hard, deep, challenging work, this community still found moments of joy. They celebrated each other at the artists' showcase, Forging Hope: Reckon and Re-Imagine. They partied together after hours. We all recalled moments of laughter together in the letting-go ceremony. We rejoiced when Lubana Al Quntar sang in the rotunda of the Chicago Cultural Center. We frolicked in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, despite the windy cold.

We look forward to returning to Chicago with this work, and continuing to connect, collaborate, and grow collective voice and power with all these artists and activists -- to work together toward a world without war and violence.

"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Many thanks to Anthony Torres Jr. (pictured above) for curating, to our wonderful ensemble, to Silk Road Rising for spreading the word, to the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and DEMIL Art Fund for the financial support to bring the project to the Triennial, to the Chicago Cultural Center for a wonderful tech crew and beautiful venue, and to all the organizers that made this profound and important event possible. Stay tuned for more updates on where you can see the DRONE project, in 2024 and beyond!

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