This site already has published an excellent review by Lisa Mullenneaux of Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus, which is running for one more week in Hudson, New York. My wife and I saw the play last night and loved it. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Lisa gives more details, but every single member of the cast was brilliantly talented and energetic. It is impossible for me to pick out a single actor especially worthy of praise. The set is ingenious and the direction perfect.
The superb production was a labor of love for the remarkable play. Khalidi’s aim is to explore a relatively-unknown chapter of Palestinian history, shedding light on the revolt of the late 1930’s and showing how these events helped to shape the 70+ years that have followed. He ambitiously analyzes not only the conflicts between the Palestinians, British, and Zionists, but the conflicts within each of those groups as well. There is tension between the Palestinian rebel and the collaborator; and between the racist, brutal and pompous English officers and the Irish and Indian soldiers who are other victims of Empire forced by circumstances into British uniforms, who form a natural alliance with the Palestinian prisoners.
Khalidi wisely portrays Samuel Hirsch, the sole Jewish character, as a sensitive and sympathetic escapee from the madness overtaking Europe whose principal sin is blindness to the future. Khalidi manages to convey the conflicts in the Jewish community between Hirsch, the long-standing Jewish community in Palestine that enjoyed close relationships with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and the European Zionist leadership bent on conquest at any cost to the indigenous population. He also manages to throw in a realistic and worthy sub-plot of feminist struggle within the Palestinian community.
One line that caught my attention was a character’s reference to Ben-Gurion and Avraham Stern as two men with a shared goal of achieving Jewish supremacy through violent means. All Zionist and most other historical narratives are careful to distinguish between the supposedly responsible, moderate statesman B-G and terrorist extremists such as Stern, who spawned the notorious Lehi (Stern Gang). Khalidi’s decision to lump them together despite their rivalry is quite interesting and appropriate, especially from the point of view of the Palestinians of that period.
Khalidi’s injection of a fair amount of humor into the play was a risky decision, but one that pays off. It is neither forced nor silly. The humor appears as the natural expression of the well-developed characters and not the artificial efforts of a playwright trying to give his audience an occasional break from the highly-charged story.
Throughout, Khalidi never forgets his craft. Political theater can often appear forced or clumsy, with drama taking a back seat to message, and characters mouthing background information or propaganda. Khalidi makes sure he avoids this trap, and expertly constructs his plot and characters with realistic dialog. Someone with no interest in the history of Palestine would find this play quite entertaining. This is great theater.
The play had a respectable turnout, including Amy Goodman by the way, but it truly deserves a full house, which is difficult to achieve because of its distance from New York City, about two hours by car, and Boston, about three hours. There are two silver linings to the inconvenience of traveling there. First, because it is a small community theater, the actors emerge afterward and mingle with the audience (informally when I was there, but I believe there are more formal talkbacks at some performances). They are thrilled to be part of this production and happy to share their views and experiences.
Second, the play is not the only attraction in Hudson, which is a very interesting small city, located right on the river, and filled with galleries, stores and restaurants. My wife and I have taken a number of day trips there the past few years with no theater to entice us. The “Opera House” in the middle of town has an unusual autobiographical exhibit that is well worth seeing. We saw the first hint of fall foliage on the way up, and next weekend should have a little more color. I hope some MW readers will make the trek as well.