NEW YORK (AP) — If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is Dan O'Brien's play about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo worth? Plenty it turns out.

The picture is Paul Watson's 1993 photograph of an angry mob dragging the nearly naked, bullet-ridden body of American serviceman Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu after Somali militiamen shot down his Black Hawk helicopter.

O'Brien's off-Broadway play, "The Body of an American" now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, focuses on Watson, his revelation that the picture has "haunted" him ever since and the relationship the playwright forged with Watson.

Watson's photograph was the turning point in President Bill Clinton's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Somalia and it was often used as an example of why the United States should steer clear of military interventions.

It also took a devastating emotional toll on Watson. At the moment he was about to snap the shutter, Watson swears he heard Cleveland, though clearly dead, say, "If you do this, I will own you forever."

Watson, who spent the bulk of his 35 year-career covering foreign wars for the Toronto Star and the Los Angeles Times, fears the photograph gave nascent militant leaders like Ayman Al-Zawahiri reason to celebrate a propaganda victory against the world's greatest military power, a fact not lost on Osama bin Laden.

The play's 90-minute, rapid-fire dialogue details the playwright and the journalist's burgeoning friendship, initially via email and ultimately in a face-to-face meeting in an Arctic Circle hotel. Actors Michael Crane, as playwright O'Brien, and Michael Cumpsty as journalist Watson, portray the pair and associated characters with great humanity and humor in spite of the seriousness of their deeper connection.

Watson admits he hasn't seen the play and doesn't intend to because of the trauma it caused. "It's a dark place," he said. "Once you get close to that door, and it starts to reopen, you tend to back off." But speaking fondly of his friend, Watson said: "Dan found a way to speak to people's hearts."

O'Brien, a playwright, poet, librettist and a 2015-2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Drama and Performance Art, said he became intrigued by the idea of writing it while listening to a 2007 NPR interview with Watson. "My idea was: Could that photograph and that event have an influence on recent history? I was interested in the idea that the photo had a huge impact on government and foreign policy."

O'Brien has won multiple awards for "The Body of an American," including the Horton Foote prize for Outstanding New American Play, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, and the PEN Center US Award for Drama.

He said he identifies with Watson, whose guilt continues. "It's interesting for me, and all of us, because the trauma is so extreme," said O'Brien. "Paul doesn't know why there is a voice connected to that picture and no others since then."




EDITOR'S NOTE: The writer is a staff photographer for The Associated Press who spent six weeks in Somalia during the summer of 1993, alongside Paul Watson. Just weeks after she left, four journalists, including her replacement, were killed by a mob of angry Somalis while they tried to photograph a helicopter assault.