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Palestinian theater’s American run of Fugard’s ‘The Island’ begins this weekend


The IslandHere’s an important cultural event we’ve been hearing about since the spring: over the next month, two wonderful Palestinian actors from the Jenin Freedom Theatre are going to be performing the theater’s adaptation of Athol Fugard’s “The Island” in the States.

The first performance is on Friday at the University of Connecticut. If you’re anywhere near Storrs this weekend, you should go. More about the actors below. First, the play:

The Island is a revolutionary South African apartheid-era drama, inspired by a true story. The Island is set in a prison and revolves around two cellmates: one who is soon to be released while the other is serving a life sentence. They spend their days at mind-numbing physical labour and at night rehearse for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone, who defies the laws of the state to follow her conscience, and her uncle who sentences her to die for her crime. Is Antigone guilty? Who decides? The Freedom Theatre adapted the play to reflect experience of Palestinian political prisoners within Israeli prisons, and it was performed to sold-out houses in the Jenin refugee camp in Arabic.

Next, the schedule. After the University of Connecticut (9/6-7), they’ll go to Providence/Brown (9/11), then Washington/Georgetown (9/16-17) then finish up in New York with four  dates (9/25-28), one in Arabic.

Felice Gelman has seen the play, she says:

The Freedom Theatre’s performance of The Island, Athol Fugard’s play set an apartheid era prison in South Africa, had great resonance with Palestinians during its run in Jenin, Palestine in March 2013. The weeklong run was sold out with performances for audiences ranging in age from adult to as young as 12. Since 40% of male Palestinians have been imprisoned at one time or another since 1967, there is hardly a family that has not had a member jailed. The response of a former prisoner, Mutaseer, spoke for many, “You know the third scene in the play when you hug your friend because you will be released? This happened with me and my friend Marcel. I was to spend 18 months and he 30 years. We had the same hug, the same experience. Thank you for this play.”

I asked a young student if he had ever seen anything like The Island before. “No, never, ” he said. Asked its meaning for him, he said, “I’m Palestinian. This is our life.”

Now The Freedom Theatre, performing for the first time in English, is bringing this moving production to the United States. Don’t miss it.

While I have not seen the play, I can’t say enough about the two actors. Faisal Abu Alheja and Ahmad Al-Rokh.

Below is a video of Faisal. Jump in anywhere on the tape and you’ll see the incredible presence of this young man. The dignity, the physicality, the humor, the beauty, the taking over of a space — that’s an actor. The Israeli soldier’s warning to Faisal– the “wisdom in Arabic” at 17:27– demonstrates this young man’s breadth of spirit. Leave the danger, and sing to it, 1000 songs.

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3 Responses

  1. September 3, 2013, 6:45 pm

    Speechless. Seeing this patronizing “journalist” to completely unable to understand what it all meant between this young actor and the subtle intelligent Israeli agent speaking perfect Arabic. Please tell this stupid interviewer that what that was a gentle advise to the actor to continue doing just what he had (I.e. singing to the danger many songs) but not to get directly involved with it (stay away from it). I.e. not to become a part of the danger, of the violence.

  2. just
    September 3, 2013, 7:03 pm

    Phil– what this man has done with his inimitable words and non-verbal honesty is beyond compare. So much of the suffering of the Palestinian people is captured in this interview– he speaks from the heart, with a heavy heart, bright and engaged and true.

    I won’t forget this. How I wish I could watch this play. I hope many do get to watch it and learn the truth from real people, not politicians or the MSM. The story of his arrest and of his nephews watching the invasion of his home and his life is palpable. When he speaks about the cup of coffee that they brought him and he says that ‘after 7 or 8 hours of tying your hands (behind your back) you can’t drink it– you’re hurt’, my mind went completely electric at such a visceral emotion and physical pain expressed so eloquently. I especially liked his “stop the (f) Occupation”, and I loved his “blah, blah, blah”.

    The ending and his explanation of the security dude’s warning to him was heartbreaking and is at the crux of the domination of the IOF, and the Israeli state.

    ( who was the interviewer with a soul?) Thank you Phil. Fugard’s play is most fitting for these talented Palestinians. Again, I am humbled that from the brutal Occupation, so much talent, resilience, and beauty flourish from the Palestinian people.

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