American Theatre and Palestine
Attending the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference in Washington, DC, this past June was a little like coming back home after a long absence. During the fifteen years that I was artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the University of Connecticut, I attended the TCG conference many times. But since 2010 I have been something of a theatre ex-patriot, living and working in the West Bank much of the time. My involvement there began with a research trip funded by a global education initiative at the University of Connecticut. It grew into a close, challenging, and rewarding association with The Freedom Theatre (TFT) of Jenin, a town in the northern end of the West Bank. The theatre is located in the Jenin refugee camp, one of many camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon supported by UNRWA, The United Nations Refugee Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Mideast. The term “camp” is misleading as friends and family ask: What is it like? Do people still live in tents? They don’t. Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank such as Aida, Dheisheh, and Arroub, are essentially ghettos at the edge of larger population centers. Each has its own history and narrative. Jenin camp has a population of 17,000 people squeezed into one square kilometer. The majority descend from families originally living in or around the coastal city of Haifa and were driven from their homes during the 1948 war, or Nakba. The population in Jenin Camp is now in its fourth generation since their expulsion. Some of the homes their grandfathers built in Haifa and the surrounding villages are still there, less than an hour away by car but completely inaccessible.
The Freedom Theatre started in 2006. Its charismatic co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was murdered in 2011, and amid the uncertainty that ensued I was asked to step in as artistic director, which I did from May 2012 through June 2013. I worked closely with Nabil Al Raee and Micaela Miranda as an artistic team to rebuild the artistic infrastructure of the theatre; now with Al Raee as artistic director and Miranda directing the acting school, I continue to collaborate with them as an artistic associate, visiting often, teaching and working alongside my colleagues who have adopted me.
The Freedom Theatre is well known internationally and has programs for children and youth in theatre, film, photography, and creative writing. But the Theatre School is the heartbeat of TFT and the acting training is as good as any I have personally witnessed. We are now nearing the end of our third cycle, with each class studying in Jenin for three years. TFT has toured successfully to over ten countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, and the United States. Our production of The Island, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona played at Georgetown University, Brown University, Connecticut Repertory Theatre, and the Fourth Street Playhouse at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2013. What began as a troupe of acting students has evolved into an ensemble of remarkable range and professionalism.
More recently, the TFT production of The Siege, written and directed by TFT Artistic Director Nabil Al Raee and co-directed by Zoe Lafferty, enjoyed a very successful tour in the United Kingdom with over thirty performances at major venues. Despite this success and our efforts, TFT had significant difficulty in finding a producing partner for a production of The Seige in the United States. This past summer, I attended the TCG conference as an artistic associate of Connecticut Repertory Theatre and The Freedom Theatre and accompanied Nabil Al Raee as he was invited to speak at the Global Theatre Pre-Conference which was co-sponsored by TCG and the Lab for Global Performance at Georgetown University.
While most of the attendees at the pre-conference and larger TCG conference may have been oblivious to the issues surrounding Palestinian theatre and the military occupation of the West Bank, the plight of refugees flowing out of the Middle East due to the Iraqi/Syrian wars was alive and present. But these two very different conflicts created very different responses from attendees. During the pre-conference there was considerable empathy for Muslims who have been victimized by other Muslims, such as the Al Qaeda attacks in Mali, and a Syrian woman who, now a refugee in Jordan, was denied an entry visa to the US for a production of Queens of Syria based on Trojan Women. However, Ari Roth’s presentation on the consequences surrounding his production of The Admission by Motti Lerner at Theater J, in Washington, was a chilling and compelling story of censorship designed to silence any artist that is seen, in any way, as critical of Israel. Herein lies the problem: While the American theatre seems ready, able, and willing to help confront Islamophobia against Arabs (whether or not they are Muslims) and other forms of violence against Arabs and Muslims, it seems comfortable only if the violence is being perpetrated by other Arabs and Muslims.
The suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of a brutal military occupation seems too complicated, too political, and subject to self-censorship by American theatres if it is the Palestinian narrative regarding the conflict and the occupation that is at the heart of a dramatic work.
In various discussions at TCG about this issue, an additional theme emerged. More than a few times I heard various artistic directors and producers refer to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as the “third rail” of board politics. To be sure, there was tremendous support for TFT Artistic Director Nabil Al Raee as a person and artist with a cause, including from many American Jewish artists. There was support for TFT as an institution. But the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of a brutal military occupation seems too complicated, too political, and subject to self-censorship by American theatres if it is the Palestinian narrative regarding the conflict and the occupation that is at the heart of a dramatic work.
We all know that theatre humanizes conflict. This was an important theme of the conference. We all know that in order for theatre to be an authentic indication of a people’s humanity it must be created from their point of view. During another session, Heather Raffo, an American/Iraqi playwright, was most articulate about the necessity for the artist to be true to her own voice and experience, and not to attempt some abstract necessity toward political balance. Ms. Raffo self-described as someone not generally sympathetic with military culture but nevertheless was compelled to grasp the depth of trauma and meaning within the experience of American military personnel in her opera, Fallujah. When asked during the Q and A if she didn’t feel the necessity to be balanced, she paused only for a moment and said simply and quite eloquently, “No.” She continued in her defense of artists whose only responsibility is to be true to their own voice and experience, and that the audience can and should respond as they may. Attempts at political balance is not a necessary requirement for playwrights or theatre artists in general.
Should we not, in the United States, be able and willing to support those eloquent voices that tell eloquent stories despite political backlash?
In addition, two American/Arab playwrights shared stories about how their plays had been praised by artistic directors only to be told that despite the virtues of these plays they could not be produced, clearly for political reasons. In short, among many players at the conference there was a somewhat rue consensus that the object of some within the Zionist community is not to achieve political balance, but to actively silence Palestinian narrative.
The major mistake in the American theatre on this issue is that we seem to feel compelled to respond to the politics of the conflict rather than focusing on the dramatic power of those embroiled in it. Should we not, in the United States, be able and willing to support those eloquent voices that tell eloquent stories despite political backlash?
During the closing plenary, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director at Center Stage, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers, and Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theatre, discussed the nature of theatre as an agent of change and social justice, and the ways in which the UN Ambassador and the Public Theatre have cooperated. Ari Roth asked Oskar Eustis, “What can you say about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? TCG was able to bring Israeli playwright Motti Lerner and The Freedom Theatre (Nabil Al Raee) together in a way that is likely impossible in Israel—when will the US Government and The Public Theatre do the same?” Mr. Eustis’s response after a brief pause was, “This is the single hardest question I have had to deal with in my professional life.” The implication being that opposition to the Palestinian narrative is so strong, so entrenched, as to make any exploration of that narrative politically untenable. Ambassador Powers’ response was perhaps even more telling. In effect, she said that as long as the “peace process” was broken, it would be very difficult for the US government to bring Palestinians and Israelis together on a cultural level that would allow a Palestinian narrative to stand on its own.
The political climate, including the current tensions in the West Bank, seem to make it impossible for theatre institutions to operate independently of the political process, particularly within the boards of directors of American theatres. And yet, in no other areas of social conflict that are so often addressed in American theatre, is this typically the case.
During and after the conference, Nabil Al Raee was approached by producers with a plan to develop a project with Motti Lerner in Washington. While good people with good intentions may want to bring an Israeli and Palestinian together in order to create a project of mutual understanding, this approach can disenfranchise Palestinians from the capacity of owning and expressing their own narrative of the conflict. Like the so-called “peace process” itself, Palestinian narrative apparently can only be brought forward within a frame of “balance” that many do not yet understand, and that normalizes the conflict and the occupation itself. In these situations, the Palestinian narrative is co-opted, assimilated into the larger political agenda that is used to justify the occupation through so-called balanced political narratives.
In his response to the question, Kwame Kwei-Amah called for a direct confrontation with political oppression through direct dramatic means and perhaps less shrouded in forms of drama that focus on dysfunctional families. Certainly, presenting Palestinians in a historical context and everyday life is vital and socially/politically powerful. Creating empathy is of the utmost importance in drama, including plays that show Palestinians as dynamic people in regular life roles. But within the context of this particular conversation on censorship and self-censorship, some works may be produced because they do not directly challenge the human rights abuses in Palestine.
There are strong theatres taking on important questions within the Palestinian and Arab/American communities, such as Golden Thread, and Silk Road Rising, and some American/Palestinian playwrights are being produced including the work of Ismail Khalidi and Betty Shamieh. Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus, received its premiere at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. But I wonder if these important successes are colored in some way by other themes more palatable to political pressures, such as the ravages of British colonialism, and the problems of Palestinians in Diaspora. As a result while they humanize the Palestinian narrative in broad strokes, they do not take on the issue of how Palestinians deal with the human rights violations perpetrated by the occupation as expressed by talented, provocative, and introspective Palestinian writers.
It’s time to hear the Palestinian narrative from Palestinians and not skewed through the political necessity of so-called balanced perspectives.
Even so, Tennis in Nablus, an award-winning play with excellent reviews that takes place in 1936, has received only one major production in the seven years since its premiere. It may be that one of Mr. Khalidi’s objectives was to establish Palestinian political identity before 1948. As such it challenges the narrative that Palestinian political identity does not exist except as in opposition to Israel. While I cannot claim this has prevented additional productions of Tennis in Nablus from being mounted, the play has not, despite its success, become part of the mainstream. Motti Lerner’s play, The Admission, calls on the Israeli public to deal with Israeli war crimes of the past, and is told from the point of view of an Israeli, but still suffered attempts at censorship in Washington DC, and it has taken several years for him to receive a production in Israel, where it finally opened at the Arab-Hebrew Jaffa Theatre this past September.
The political climate in Israel and Palestine and the US is as fractious and polarized as ever. I am not arguing for any theatre to take a position on the conflict, or to approach this issue from an ideological perspective. But theatre should not be subject to political pressures to repress any perspective, if presented in a provocative, rich, and dramatic way. I am also not arguing for a production of The Siege in particular. Artistic directors appropriately use their judgment as they see fit and The Siege may or may not be any individual artistic director’s choice for dramatic reasons. A tour is now being planned for fall of 2017 and is being produced by ArKtype Productions and Thomas O. Kriegsmann. Nevertheless, I would argue that the Palestinian experience within the occupation remains underrepresented in our own national discourse. Theatres should be willing to contribute to this discourse, as we all know, in the ways no other medium does as successfully. It’s time to hear the Palestinian narrative from Palestinians and not skewed through the political necessity of so-called balanced perspectives.
At the very least, it’s time for the theatre community itself to discuss the issues surrounding institutional self-censorship regarding Palestinian theatre. What exactly are the forces at work that create an environment of self-censorship? How can we name them exactly? What is our responsibility to have this conversation? The nature of the occupation and Palestinian rights is being interrogated throughout American institutions. If artistic directors and theatre institutions do not listen and contribute to this conversation, the American theatre may very soon be dreadfully out of step.