Paul Watson has had many opportunities the past few years to see “The Body of an American.” He’s taken advantage of none of them.
What makes this a matter of particular curiosity is that “The Body of an American” is about him. Now, some people simply don’t want any association with works of art concerning themselves. But that’s not strictly the case here. Watson cooperated fully with the playwright, Dan O’Brien, in his researching and writing of the piece. And even more unusually, Watson has agreed to participate in panel discussions about the play, going so far as to sit onstage for after-show talkbacks, including some for the well-received production now running at Theater J.
The question, of course, is why won’t he watch?
“I think he finds it potentially bad luck,” says O’Brien. “For a few years there, I assumed he’d take a peek at it. And then when we started doing talkbacks, he’d come and do those and tell stories. But he still won’t see the play.”
Watson himself owns up to something cryptic about his declining to attend. “Part of not seeing the play is respecting whatever it is that I feel I need to answer for,” he says. “Another part of it is just pure fear, the trauma that affects me that remains locked up.”
Perhaps a brief explanation of what the play is about would help to illuminate Watson’s extreme reluctance. Watson, a war correspondent and photojournalist, won the Pulitzer Prize for a 1993 photograph he took while on assignment in war-ravaged Somalia for the Toronto Star. He snapped a truly horrifying — and now famous — picture of a U.S. Army sergeant’s corpse being dragged through the streets of Somalia’s battered capital, Mogadishu. Years later, O’Brien became fascinated by the photo and the story of how Watson came to take it, and the impact it has had on his life. He thought it might make the subject of a play. So out of the blue, he wrote to Watson to see whether he thought so, too.
After communicating by email and Skype, Watson from his home in Vancouver and O’Brien from his in Los Angeles, Watson reluctantly agreed to meet with O’Brien in February 2010 in, of all places, the Canadian Arctic, to which he had occasion to travel. By then, a play had begun to take shape, a verbatim account based on their conversations, inspired by the photograph that changed Watson’s life, and would now, more than a decade and a half later, change O’Brien’s, too. Somehow, the playwright had managed to breach the wall of the photojournalist’s emotional sanctuary, to the point where Watson was willing to share everything he was able to, about what he described as the perpetual haunting the event and its aftermath engendered.
“I remember the moment I decided, ‘You can have anything you want,’ ” Watson explains, adding that he recalls telling O’Brien: “You will be my confessor.”
Whatever bond was forged by these two men of varying and yet sympathetic temperaments, it fueled the writing of O’Brien, who with “The Body of an American” has enjoyed his most successful play to date. The piece already has been produced both in New York and London, and it shared the 2013 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for drama inspired by American history, won this year by “Hamilton.” As Nelson Pressley notes in his review of the Theater J production, the symbiotic relationship Watson and O’Brien have developed comes through in the play’s narrative energy. “They gush dialogue,” Pressley writes, “with the fevered intensity of men managing a crisis.”
Watson’s ongoing crisis is the torment over a photograph that one suspects he wishes had gone unrewarded. It’s as if he has metabolized the recognition that has accrued to him as a cause for unending penance.
“It’s really odd, and I know I sound crazy when I say this, but I might as well sound crazy,” Watson confides by phone from Vancouver. “You know the sense of a haunting? Most people process that in a literal sense. But I’m not talking about an actual ghost. I use the term not as an apparition — the English language doesn’t describe it very well and I have to be careful. For instance, I’ve always thought that if I don’t do as I’m supposed to do, that ghost, that spirit or whatever it is, will have its vengeance.”
That thought reminds Watson of a close call he reports that he subsequently had, while on another hazardous assignment, in Iraq. “I was almost murdered by a mob in Mosul,” he says. “The way it unfolded seemed like, in retrospect, poetic justice: Of course this would be a way I would die; this would make sense.” He survived “because I was saved by a small, brave group of Iraqis who fought back the mob.”
Watson’s painful confidences have drawn the playwright inexorably into the photographer’s life, and even if his subject won’t see the fruit of their collaborative efforts, O’Brien has made his peace with that. “I would say he’s almost an alter ego,” the dramatist explains. “He’s like a brother.”
The Body of an American, by Dan O’Brien. Directed by José Carrasquillo. Through May 22 in the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets $37-$67. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.