Artist Activist

Bad Apples: Who let this happen?

Co-produced by ACT as part of their ACTLab program, Bad Apples is a semi-fictional, rock musical account of the 2003 prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The play follows a love triangle of Abu Ghraib guards, their torture/abuse of prisoners and the subsequent investigation and trial of their misdeeds. The playwright (Jim Leonard) and production attempt to answer the question “How did we let this happen?”. Ostensibly, this question indicates that Bad Apples is meant to be a rumination on the prejudices that spark war and exploitation of peoples, right? Unfortunately, the playwright makes the mistake of re-imagining and reducing the backstories of his protagonists to kitchen sink psychodrama. This grave mistake led to a series of socially ignorant choices which—in spite of a fine group of performers—make Bad Apples a reductive musical exploration that belies the horrific events at Abu Ghraib and the experiences of the individuals involved. As a result, Bad Apples becomes a white-washed, ethnocentric musical disguised as a vehicle for morality. Nah, son.

The playwright decided to cast Chuck Shepherd (based on Charles Graner, who was white) as a black man. Charles Graner’s real-life history of domestic abuse was the focal point of Chuck’s backstory, but the playwright also included elements of child endangerment and a vaguely troubled childhood which the character referred to only once. This backstory was the playwright’s attempt to ‘humanize’ the character of Graner: his fatal flaw was having a troubled past which led to his penchant for BDSM and abuse of prisoners. What the playwright doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care about?) is that the character as written conforms to the violent, hyper-sexual, black male stereotype that exists prominently in white American media and literature. In an attempt to humanize a real-life, white male sadist, the playwright doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care?) that he has dehumanized a black male character and actor.

The lack of dramatic text and action devoted to the other essential peoples in this story--the prisoners and the 9/11 hijackers--reveals an unbalanced and white-washed approach of the playwright’s attempt at humanization. Ethnocentrism, anyone? In the two scenes featuring an Iraqi prisoner, we see him either in his orange jumpsuit or hooded and in his underwear, being passed violently among the soldiers, speaking just a few lines in both instances. The hijackers’ only scene involves them sitting down to their last supper at a pizza joint, only to have their debate about eating pork devolve into a drug-fueled stripper dance party. The prisoner in his orange jumpsuit is merely a prop, and the hijackers easy targets for antagonism and disgust. Neither are rendered as complex human beings.

The female leads, Lindsay and Lt. Scott, are buoyed by tired, “risky” (lesbianism? threesomes?) tropes to try and play on the audience's sense of morality as defined by gender. Multiple times, Lindsay states that she’d do anything for Chuck, even go to jail--“without Chuck, [her] life is like jail”--because she loves him. Lt. Scott states that loving [Chuck and Lindsay] “was the only good thing we had in Abu”, implying that the torture of prisoners was an incidental by-product of that love. By using love as the main motivation and justification for their actions, the playwright has rendered these characters as two-dimensional women, defined and restricted by their love for a man. The playwright’s lazy attempt to get at the heart of why this abuse happened results in this stilted, harmful, gender-normative narrative.

The creators of Bad Apples could have:

  • Kept the character Chuck as a white man and investigated Charles Graner’s real-life backstory as inspiration for the show, exploring the intersection of white male privilege and toxic masculinity prevalent in society, especially in the military.
  • Devoted substantial text and dramatic action depicting the background history and real lives of the Iraqi prisoners and hijackers. 

  • Researched and explored prevalent issues that women face while working in the military--misogyny, sexual harassment, rape, obstruction of professional advancement--and have those issues drive the backstory and text of the main female characters.

Now, a wise man once told me that no one wants to know how a critic would rewrite a play, and I believe him. A critic’s job is to ask questions, to point out what is problematic. So, my point is: if the play could have been any of the items above plus a hundred other things, why was it this? The playwright obviously did not realize he was rendering Abu only as a plot device for white folks to reaffirm their stereotypical ideas of people and conflict, thus reaffirming the very same prejudices that lead to war and exploitation. My question is: Why did no one else in the process recognize this and stop it? How did they let this play happen?