In 1993, war reporter Paul Watson was covering the civil war in Somalia for the Toronto Star. While in Mogadishu, he came across a mob dragging the body of a dead American soldier through the streets. Watson snapped three photos. One earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
But he also came out of the experience scarred, suffering from depression and PTSD. “I felt like I’d stolen [the soldier’s] soul to make a point,” Watson writes in his book Where War Lives. Watson’s story and excerpts from his book come to life in Dan O’Brien’s new play The Body of an American, running at Portland Center Stage through Nov. 11. It was commissioned by the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.
O’Brien was first drawn to Watson via a 2007 interview on National Public Radio. “Hearing him tell his story was very haunting,” O’Brien recalls. “Part of it was that I identified with him. I was feeling very haunted as well.” O’Brien’s trauma was the result of estrangement from his family—a year earlier, they had cut off all contact with him. “There was no explanation. For that to happen, it had to be a pretty dysfunctional family—and it was,” the writer admits sagely.
O’Brien wrote Watson an e-mail and thus began a two-year “pen pal-ship.” The two finally met in 2010 in Ulukhaktok, a hamlet in Canada. The play is centered on their friendship and respective searches for resolution. Two actors play O’Brien, Watson and a variety of peripheral characters. In addition to Body, O’Brien has written a collection of poetry and an opera based on Where War Lives. The latter, Theotokia / The War Reporter, will premiere at the Bing Concert Hall in Stanford, Calif., in 2013.
“Paul’s been hugely meaningful to me as a writer because there’s so much to admire in what he’s done with his life and what he continues to do,” O’Brien elaborates. “What kind of person spends his life going from one genocide to another?”
And in discovering more about Watson, O’Brien feels he has rediscovered himself. “Paul encouraged me to ask questions and to try to solve the puzzle of my own family,” he says. “I’m less introverted now, and more optimistic and trusting, because Paul trusted me so much.”