Aaron Hughes went to Iraq in 2003 as part of an invading army. He returned in 2009 as part of a peace movement.
Since then, the American soldier turned artist-activist has adopted the popular, everyday Iraqi ritual of sharing tea in a performance and discussion that has taken Hughes around the world.
Tea proves a sometimes startling, sometimes ungainly vehicle for reflection and conversation on war, dehumanization and its opposites. This Memorial Day weekend, it concludes a three-week run at the Imaginists’ storefront theater in Santa Rosa.
For most of the performance, Hughes — 30-years-old and boyish-looking with a lanky frame, blond hair and khaki army shirt over his civilian dress — sits cross-legged on the floor of the theater, manipulating a hotplate and a double-decker teakettle set on a small Persian rug.
The audience sits around him. One side of the space is accented by rows of individually crafted, lightly etched ceramic cups. Inspired by the drawings on Styrofoam cups by Guantanamo detainees, each cup represents one of the 779 men held there.
The text of Tea is itself a kind of vessel waiting to be filled.
Hughes’s own anecdotes from the battlefield tread similar terrain to narratives covered by many other commentators on the War on Iraq -- or indeed many other wars and conflicts. These include the exhaustion of deployment, the seeming arbitrariness of military orders, and the growing disillusionment with the nature of the occupation that also inform, for example, documentaries like Occupation: Dreamland.
As the dialogue stretches beyond Iraq to encompass the more global theme of dehumanizing violence, the performer interlaces his personal memories with loosely related facts about other conflict zones and the United States’ behemoth prison system.
Hughes's narrative is occasionally interrupted by members of the Imaginists theater company, delivering short, poetic monologues that further elaborate on the topic at hand.
But the strength of the piece rests in large part on the audience, the members of which are invited by Hughes to share their own impressions and stories throughout.
It is in these shared experiences and personal relations, such as one woman's relating of a terrifying night spent in prison, that Tea offers its antidote to what the show describes as the numbing of our social instincts by fear, distance, and coercive forms of authority.
While not exactly a free-form discussion, Tea depends on this audience participation to realize its best properties. It’s here that the themes Hughes evokes start to simmer and even threaten to boil over as, in the end, other voices and experiences share time, space and tea on a plain of equality and mutual respect.
Tea plays Thursday through Saturday (May 21-23) at 8 pm at the Imaginists, 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa, CA, 95401. Performances are pay-what-you-can (no one turned away for lack of funds) and are limited to 25 people. RSVP online at theimaginists.org.