In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish prince warns that actors should be well taken care of because, “When you die you were better to have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.”
Listen to David Byrd's report and Q&A with him:
Producer Charlie Fink and writers Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo have staged a new musical that issues the same warning.
“Who’s Your Baghdaddy (or How I Started the Gulf War)” explores the forces that led to the start of the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Fink – the head of Washington’s New Musical Foundation – said he wanted to use what he called “the exaggerated magical reality of musical comedy” to illustrate that responsibility for the Iraq war lay with ordinary people, not just with U.S. leaders.
Former President George W. Bush is never seen, but his State of the Union speech is heard. The same is true for former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in which he quotes Curveball’s flawed information. “Curveball” was the codename the CIA gave to the now notorious Iraqi defector who fed U.S. intelligence officials much of the flawed information that they had collected about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.
Producer Charlie Fink says not portraying the political figures was a deliberate choice.
“By showing the actions of regular people, you know, we – all of us are guilty in some way of starting the Iraq war,” he said. “It’s true we deferred to our leaders, but you know that deferral is an action. And that is what the characters in the show do.”
The energetic cast includes three characters known as “the Fundits” who tell their tale through what they call “Hystorical Fiction” - like hysterical, but with an “o” - which is “not facts, but flair; not evidence, but embellishment.”
The Fundits (Emily Levey, Meredith Richard and Cyle Durkee) act as a Greek chorus: they – like the audience – know the ending, but highlight the absurdity anyway. The model director Marshall Pailet based the characters on three high school girls who comment on everyone else, but never turn their insight on themselves.
The main characters include three men who are looking to make their marks – all based on real people. John Dellaporta plays Curveball, whose fabricated tale of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program gets passed to German detective Richart (Paul Scanlan). The unverified story makes its way to CIA analyst Nelson (Matthew G. Meyers) and eventually to former weapons inspector David Kay, (Harry A. Winter).
As the play progresses – from 2001 to 2003 as shown by marquee signs and numbered badges the characters wear - minor decisions lead to the start of the Iraq War.
To date, nearly 5,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, along with more than 125,000 Iraqi civilians, as put by some estimates. Thousands more people have been injured, and a huge part of the Iraqi population has been displaced. The financial costs have spiraled into hundreds of billions of dollars, even as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country later this year.
In its epilogue, the play shows how one decision by a minor bureaucrat at the CIA could have prevented the war. Writer Marshall Pailet says his goal was to show how seemingly minor players can have a major impact on world events.
“You know this show is about some very real people who are just average, mid to low-level worker bees that really messed things up because they weren’t careful,” he said.
John Dellaporta says he wanted to show how Curveball changed – from a good-timing asylum seeker who raps the hilarious “Who’s Your Baghdaddy” while partying in Germany in the middle of the show - to someone who betrays his friends.
“Everything he’s saying is true to him,” he said. “Of all the fun stuff he’s doing, of all the fun he’s having, the most important thing ultimately is that he is creating a real friendship along the way. Ultimately he feels at the end finally that he has somehow committed a betrayal himself. And that’s part of the tragedy of the character is that he really doesn’t understand what happened,” Dellaporta explained.
Harry A. Winter, who plays weapons inspector David Kay, says he tried to show the feelings of those who were sure that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons.
“Every evening I try to put myself in the position of the people who got sucked in, in the assurance that there was something there,” the veteran actor said. “And I was one of those, so I am either doing penance for that or trying to explain those peoples’ positions.”
As the characters realize there are no chemical weapons in Iraq, the fantasy in which they put their faith begins to unravel. The ballad “Speak to Me Tomorrow” has the cast realize the consequences of their actions – death, destruction, and devastation. The Fundits then point to the lesson of the show – we believed what we wanted to believe, facts notwithstanding.
“Who’s Your Baghdaddy” leaves the audience laughing, but – like all good satire – thinking as well. In doing so, it accomplishes what producer Charlie Fink wrote in the program – that people would “see and accept our responsibility as citizens for what happened, and what we will do in the future.”