The hottest theater ticket in DC right now isn’t to a blockbuster musical, a star-studded Shakespearean play, or a big-time production already contracted to hit Broadway. The ticket everyone is clamoring for is Intelligence at Arena Stage, a world premiere political thriller which has already sold out and extended its run, even before it has opened.
AK: Let’s talk about the start of this whole thing; this play is part of a series, right?
JL: Yes, the Power Plays series.
AK: Which is a series of commissions from Arena. So, what was the mission part of your commission?
JL: When I got the call for the commission, we knew it would be about DC politics and power [which is part of the series]. I knew that I wanted a woman at the center of the play. A woman whose experience influenced the political landscape and shaped the conversations that we have. There’s so many people who that could be.
One important thing that I brought to the play was my family experience: my father and grandfather were both in military intelligence. So I’ve always been transfixed by the CIA and the world of intelligence. When you look at intelligence, it’s all about gathering information so that a decision can be made. But the thing is, those decisions are based on the shape of the intelligence as it is presented. What gets dangerous is when intelligence is influenced by ideology. That’s exactly what happened in 2003 when Bush took us into Iraq.
We went into Iraq based on a series of lies, and there’s no getting around that. It wasn’t like 1991. There weren’t mass graves. They weren’t 6 months away from being able to launch missiles into Israel. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Then something interesting happened. This diplomat, Joseph Wilson, was sent to investigate something that the government already knew to be untrue: that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger. Then he wrote an article for the New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” and because it revealed these administration lies, there was a big effort to retaliate, to embarrass or otherwise discredit him. That’s when this group of powerful men in the administration—Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney—out Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA covert operative. And they did so to prove nepotism, which used to be something no one wanted to be accused of in the government.
So this becomes fascinating when thought of in terms of “Power Play.” Was it right to go into Iraq? Was it right to lie about why we were going into Iraq? Was it right to retaliate in this way against people who tried to reveal the truth? These are power plays made by power players, and my work as a citizen and an artist is to speak truth to power. The way that I do that is by writing plays. So that was my mission.
But my mission was also to put women at the center of this play. Television is the place where people get information about women in the CIA, but it doesn’t do a great job of telling their stories. So I wanted to deeply research and bring some truth to this story. I spoke with 3 female CIA case officers, which was really cool! Two of them came to a reading of the play and gave their feedback and responses, which were really powerful. Then another came and talked with the cast.
It was interesting to see how they negotiate their roles of power. How do you balance being a wife, a mother, a daughter, and also being this person who is highly trained, who could kill you, who has this vast array of information about how the world works, and when they walk in the door, it [snaps] has to turn off.
There’s a character in the play, Elaine, who is Plame’s boss, and she is a Black woman. I remember talking to someone from the CIA, and they said, “Well, you know, there aren’t very many people of color in those high up positions, let alone a Black woman.” And I said to her, “I know, but just because there aren’t, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.” That’s a thing arts can do: show you a vision of the world as it could be.
Want to go?
at Arena Stage
closes April 9, 2017
Details and tickets
So, when you come see the play, it’s inspired by these real people and real situations, but it is still all fictional. It’s my imagination, my conversation with those events, my heartbreak, my disappointment with what happened. While 9/11 changed me in many ways, I was shifted even more drastically by the Iraqi invasion. The focus became “How am I a citizen-activist through my work?” Which means dealing with how events are shaped by war, how war destroys lives and countries. Because, if you are someone who wants peace, you must inevitably face war.
AK: You have all of these angles into this play, how do you deal with the creative restrictions of theater (like limited cast or limited space) to express all of these different avenues of this complicated stories?
JL: When I’m writing a play, I have to think about a lot of questions. What are the issues I’m trying to address? What’s the best structure to amplify those themes? Who is essential to the world of this play? And when it came down to it, I found I only needed five people. It works because we’re looking at interpersonal relationships and the world gets express by these characters relationships to her and each other.
So we have this CIA officer, Valerie Plame, at the center of the play. Her relationship with her husband shows what life is like at home for her. Now, he happens to be a diplomat who is passionately trying to reveal the lies that lead a nation to war. He’s very charismatic and loves to engage with the press. Through him, we can tap into the outside world and public opinion without having to have a news reporter in the play.
Then you have this CIA officer’s relationship with her boss. Through her, we get the party line, and we get the (imagined, remember) pressure and meddling of the administration into this CIA world.
Then we have the people of Iraq, who are so important to this whole story. There are two Iraqi characters, a man and a woman. I’ve imagined the man as the former head of a weapons program who escaped Baghdad in the 90’s and is running a coffee shop in Jordan. His niece, a fashion designer, lives in the US, but travels all over the Middle East. Through these people, we get to know what it was like to live in Iraq during the war, what it was like for people who identify as Muslim to navigate that identity both in the US and the Middle East.
So we get all of these great angles from just these characters. But there’s another set of “characters” here: the designers of Intelligence. We have a great projectionist [Jared Mezzocchi] who will be bringing in newspaper headlines, TV interviews, and all kinds of amazing things. People who work with sound to create the environment of the play. Misha [Kachmann, the set designer] has built an amazing world with these extraordinary white and gray concrete walls that let you know instantly that you are in DC. These people make it feel like we don’t have any limitations.
And that’s a relief for me because, if we had a ten character play, I wouldn’t know what all those people would be saying…? I’m really glad that I only have five character arcs, and I only have to deal with five people’s complex emotional lives.
AK: What’s it like doing this particular political play in our current political environment?
JL: I wrote the majority of this play in 2015, long before there was any inkling of what this current political environment would become. As we read through this play, we keep on encountering these lines that are so relevant. “No, the President lied” and “This is what happened when the President lied,” and now we have a President who lies all the time! I think if I tried to write the play in reference to today, it would have been terrible. Too on the nose.
Honestly, I was worried that people wouldn’t want to see this play. Because there’ve been movies, books, interviews, all those things on what is now a historical event. But who knew that this history would be so relevant? We have someone in office who not only lies, but also questions the intelligence agencies in a way similar to George W. Bush and especially Dick Cheney. When the designers came in to see the run, they just kept on nodding and saying, “Yup, yup, we’re living this right now.” And that was a huge relief. But also scary.
I want to emotionally impact everyday people who come see this play, because those are the people who vote. We are the people who have a responsibility to select who represents them. Regular, everyday people can have a powerful impact at the ballot box every 2-4 years, but also have a duty, responsibility, and opportunity to become more active and more thoughtful in the civic processes that shape our day-to-day lives. Knowing that we’re a community, that we’re linked arm in arm with the people around us. That’s something that’s elevated in the play. We see how decisions in the US have an irreparable impact on the people of Iraq. The reverberations of our decisions of who to represent us and the decisions those people make spread around the world.
AK: I’d like you to go back to the moment you had the idea for Intelligence. If you got to go back to tell yourself one thing at that exact moment, what would it be?
JL: “Don’t be afraid to admit that, back in 2003 when Bush went to Iraq, for the first time in your life, you felt betrayed. Betrayed by the country.” I say that because for so long when I was writing, I thought I was just angry that this happened. But it was betrayal. I’m the daughter of veterans. My brother was in the Air Force and now works for the Army. My sister works for the VA. When I say that I believe in our roles as a citizen, I truly mean that.