February 3, 2016

Emily Mann’s “Hoodwinked” Examines Fort Hood Killings and Radical Islam


EXPLORING ISLAMIST EXTREMISM: (left to right) Playwright Emily Mann, scholars Dr. Stuart Gottlieb, and Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi and moderator Paula Alekson discuss with the audience the issues raised at Sunday’s performance of Ms. Mann’s new play “Hoodwinked.” (Photo Courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center)

“It’s about the 21st century’s responses to Islamist extremism,” Emily Mann explained in describing her documentary drama Hoodwinked, performed as a reading in the McCarter Theatre Center Lab last weekend, “but it’s also very much about asking questions and sharing information.” The drama was a springboard for a lively discussion. 

The first act ran an hour and 15 minutes in classic documentary drama or theater-of-testimony fashion, presenting a rich array of voices — first directly related to the Fort Hood massacre of November 2009, where 13 people on the Texas military base were fatally shot and many more wounded — then delving into the larger political and philosophical issues of terrorism and radical Islam through “scenes inspired by real conversations, speeches, video, and performance of primary text.”

The second act was a discussion with the audience, led by Emily Mann and expert panelists. The panelists were different for each of the five performances over the weekend, but on Saturday included Graeme Wood, correspondent for The Atlantic, where his March 2015 “What ISIS Really Wants” was the most read article on any subject in any magazine in 2015, and Dr. Celene Ibrahim, scholar, educator, and Muslim chaplain at Tufts University.

The questions emerged readily throughout both acts: What ultimately motivated the shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist, and what motivates radical Islam in general? Why did the F.B.I. insist on characterizing the event as workplace violence rather than an act of jihad, despite Hasan’s extensive communications with terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki? Do we have a coherent counter-terrorism policy? Are we safer than we were on 9/11? What is the proper U.S. response to ISIS and extremist Islam ?

Ms. Mann, artistic director of McCarter and author of Having Our Say, Execution of Justice and other highly acclaimed documentary dramas, has been working on Hoodwinked for six years. She described her confusion when she first heard reports of the Fort Hood shootings, “the obfuscation of the event as it came out in the news” and the response of the F.B.I.

Hoodwinked is clearly an attempt to explore the issues and pursue the conversation that has not been explored and pursued either by government officials or by the media.

“The conversation has been hijacked by the bloviators who command the media,” she stated. Hoodwinked is Ms. Mann’s attempt to take back that conversation and examine it in a deeper way in order to achieve greater understanding and the possibility of progress.

“As I dug deeper, I discovered a widespread lack of understanding in America regarding Islamic extremism and how it functions. The response to jihadist violence tends to be one of two things — anti-Muslim bigotry or an attempt to completely divorce extremist Islamism from Islam in order to combat Islamophobia. This play attempts to address what Islamist extremism actually is, to truly understand it, so we can all, as a nation — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — combat it together.”

The performance engaged Friday night’s audience of about 90, both with its dramatic intensity, as the events unfolded, and with the depth, range, and intellectual fervor of the dialogue, within the play itself and in the following panel discussion.

The characters in Hoodwinked, identified on an upstage screen, then given voice by one of the eight accomplished actors reading from music stands or podiums, represented a fascinating and diverse array, including victims of the shooting; F.B.I. officials; TV newscasters and late-night pundits; Barack Obama eulogizing the deceased at the Fort Hood memorial service; Attorney-General Eric Holder; the shooter Nidal Hasan; a Muslim cleric; a Muslim university student; the counter-terrorism expert Amos Guiora; women’s rights activist and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute Zeyno Baran; co-founder of the anti-terrorist think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz; Anwar al-Awaki; and terrorist Faisal Shahzad, who is serving a life sentence for an attempted bombing in Times Square.

Hoodwinked defies conventional plotting or the establishment of a protagonist, but a thread running through the drama is a university student’s struggle for understanding. Working on a research project, the young woman, certainly a persona of the playwright in her quest for understanding, meets with Guiora, the cleric, and other figures during the course of the drama and tries to find answers to the most difficult questions about Muslim extremism. This student character also provides an accessible figure for the audience to relate to and identify with in working through the many issues of the play.

In the “act two” discussion on Friday, Ms. Mann described herself “falling down the rabbit hole into this exploration,” and Mr. Wood, embracing the same metaphor, stated, “I’m still at the bottom of that rabbit hole, trying to work through that confusion. That’s what I do as a journalist.”