The easiest way to encapsulate the shift in the elite American understanding of the conflict occurring before our eyes is that nearly 8 years ago, under pressure, the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled a drama about an American idealist who died in Palestine (“My Name Is Rachel Corrie”), and ten days ago it hosted a wrenching drama about Palestinian prisoners, played by Palestinian actors, one of whom said after the show, as Tony Kushner and Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater sat beside him on stage, that Palestine has been occupied for 65 years.
The show was The Island, Athol Fugard’s two-man play set in an island prison in South Africa and adapted to the Palestinian scene by the Jenin Freedom Theater. The two actors were the astonishing Faisal Abualheja (left above) and Ahmad al-Rokh. Al-Rokh made the comment about a 65 year occupation.
Oskar Eustis seemed moved to be sharing a stage with such spirited players, and he brought out the message:
The issues raised by The Island– from South Africa to Palestine, they vibrate and resonate and are completely alive…
Of the tensions between the prisoners as they rehearse a play-within-the-play of a prison production of Antigone, Eustis said they showed “the incredible difficulty of solidarity under conditions of oppression.”
Abualheja, the taller and more animated of the two actors, echoed the thought:
This is a play that talks about us. Yes. This is our play.
As Alia Malek wrote in Al Jazeera America, the play merges Palestinian and South African realities, in what is now a solid artistic/political tradition.
American consciousness didn’t come first. The Jenin Freedom Theater created this production for Palestinians first. The two men performed it in Arabic in Jenin; and speaking with some nervousness, Abualheja related how painful it was to do so.
“Prison in Palestine is a very sensitive subject. Because each house has experience of the prison.” In one family, they may have had 5 years of a family member imprisoned. In another 20 years.
So: who are you as an actor to try to mimic conditions that people in your audience know better than you?
Abualheja spoke of the night that a famous former prisoner came to the show, a man who spent 27 years in Israel prisons. “My heart was like this,” Abualheja said, flapping his hand against his shirt. “You miss one thing,” the ex-prisoner said afterward– they used their shoes as a pillow.
“That’s exactly what cultural resistance is. We in the Freedom Theater, we are not just actors, we are freedom fighters.”
While al-Rokh told an artist’s story of the Israeli invasion of Jenin in 2002, in which scores were killed. His uncle in Saudi Arabia had sent him a Play Station. It was somewhere under the rubble. Al-Rokh was determined to find it and dug angrily through the wreckage. Media came up. “Your mother is under there?” “No. My Play Station.” The media went away; and I say it was an artist’s story because it made Palestinians human in a way a million flyers cannot.
Again: These statements were made to applause on a New York stage. That is a sign of how much consciousness has been raised in a few years. And in the house were several people who have helped to make that change, including Kushner, Malek, Udi Aloni, Adam Shatz, Lillian Rosengarten, Felice Gelman, Dinky Romilly, and Terry Weber.
Director Gary English was proud to be pushing political change. Americans are still under the influence of the Exodus narrative we got in the 60s and 70s. This is “my own act of solidarity,” he said, his attempt to be “transformative.”
Kushner sought to square the circle, to reconcile the oppression shown in the play with the possibility of Israeli consciousness-raising. Will you bring the production to Israel, he asked?
Gary English said, “We can’t. Palestinians are not allowed to go into Israel from the West Bank. It’s illegal. In fact, these guys can’t even get permission to go to the Jerusalem consulate to get a visa. They have to go to Amman. It is easier for them to go to the US than to Haifa.”
While Abualheja spoke of how it used to be, when Israelis came to Jenin to buy vegetables because they were cheaper. Then the second intifida came, and “the Palestinians become a nightmare….[Israelis] are afraid to speak Hebrew in Jenin.”
Of the nightmare, Al-Rokh, a solid and turbulent presence, said, “We can’t go there and they can’t come to Jenin. They think if you go to Jenin we will eat you.”
And Abualheja reminded us, “It’s a dream for us to visit the sea in Haifa.”
It is the dream of a blazingly-talented Palestinian actor in a refugee camp that he will be able to go to the sea less than an hour away. Can that also be an American dream? Give that one a few years.