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Public Theater backed out of oral agreement to put on ‘The Siege’

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It has been a couple weeks since New York’s Public Theater reneged on its commitment to stage The Siege, a production it was planning to put on in May in collaboration with the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre. The Public Theater offered no concrete explanation, instead providing this boilerplate statement from Director of Communications Candi Adams: “We have great respect for the Freedom Theatre. It’s our policy that The Public doesn’t comment on shows that have been under consideration.” According to a statement of the Freedom Theatre website, cancelling the US tour of the production, their members are disappointed in being denied to chance to show the play to the US public but still hope to stage the play some time in the fall of 2017.

Though no contract had been signed, the play’s Palestinian co-director Nabil Alreaa said there had been an oral agreement between the two theaters that was supposed to result in a signed contract by January. “This was a great opportunity to know the Public Theater,” said Alreaa, “especially the Artistic Director Oskar, to talk to him about the work we do.”

He is referring to Oskar Eustis, who was committed enough to the production that he persuaded the Jenin Freedom Theatre to turn down offers from other bidders. Now that the unofficial deadline has passed, Alreaa and his co-director Zoe Lafferty – to say nothing of the many others who have spent the past year in pre-production – are understandably frustrated and upset that the Public Theater backed out of the collaboration with little to no pretext.

Freedom Theatre spokesperson Felice Gelman is still in the dark about why exactly the production was shut down: “As to what the rationale was, I know it didn’t involve any technical or artistic or scheduling or other types of problems.”

While Gelman doesn’t have any solid information, she knows that any voices critical of Israel face a constant risk of being silenced. “We know that presenting Palestinian artists and the Palestinian narrative, which The Siege presents, is incredibly controversial,” she says, “and it becomes particularly controversial the more public the institution.” In this case, those who find the Palestinian cause overly “controversial” prefer that the controversy remain hidden in offices and boardrooms rather than be made public so that audiences can make up their own minds.

It seems likely that some pressure came down from the board, but who exactly is behind this pressure is yet to be seen. At the very least, this incident provides yet more evidence that there are powerful people who see Palestinian voices as a threat and are determined to silence them. And why might some feel threatened by The Siege, which is based on the real-life story of the 39-day IDF siege of Bethlehem during the second intifada? The likely problem Zionists would have with the play (if comparable past cases offer any indication) is not simply the subject, which is a matter of historical fact, but the idea that the story is told from the Palestinian perspective.

The refusal of the Public Theater to provide even the most basic explanation for its sudden change of heart suggests that the cancellation is part of a larger problem. It is the same problem that led the New York Theatre Workshop to shut down the late Alan Rickman’s production of My Name is Rachel Corrie in 2006 for similarly unclear reasons, and that led an angry crowd of Zionists, some wearing yellow Star of David patches, to protest the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Death of Klinghoffer in 2014 for daring to show Palestinians in a sympathetic light. It is a problem that amounts to a particularly American variety of soft censorship, the kind that results not from legal constraints on free speech so much as the financial power of private organizations and individuals, and which frames its repression of opposing viewpoints in innocuous language that obscures its true purpose.

This is how consent is manufactured in the United States: not by government edict but by the arbitrary will of those with money and, therefore, power. It is the censorship responsible for the uniquely Caucasian flavor of Hollywood and the knee-jerk Islamophobia of the American media establishment; it is the censorship that smears Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists as anti-Semites and restrains academic freedom in the name of cultural sensitivity. It is a denial of artistic freedom that can be traced directly to the unjust power imbalances that the free market creates.

The maddening fact is that members of the Public Theater’s leadership – who knows which ones or how many – had the power to ruin a production a year in the making. Even more absurd, the decision seems to have been made solely out of some vague, cowardly fear that presenting the Palestinian cause in a favorable light might make yet another crack in the increasingly fragile Zionist consensus. The fear of Palestinians telling their side of the story is proof in itself of the this fragility, for it points to an even bigger fear: the fear that if these stories are told, the status quo pro-Israel narrative might become much harder to believe.

Rob Bryan

Rob Bryan is a freelance journalist from New York City. Follow him on twitter: @rbryan86.

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5 Responses

  1. annie on February 25, 2016, 11:21 am

    Even more absurd, the decision seems to have been made solely out of some vague, cowardly fear that presenting the Palestinian cause in a favorable light might make yet another crack in the increasingly fragile Zionist consensus.

    i seriously doubt that. the decision was likely made for financial purposes. someone who funds the theatre probably threatened to stop funding and the theatre couldn’t afford to piss them off. the opposite of the dean of harvard’s response, where he held ground:

    • mondoschwartz on February 27, 2016, 9:24 am


      Of course you’re right. The decision was made for financial reasons because one or more insider blackmailers (guess who they might be?) threatened to choke the Public.

      But you’re also 100% wrong: the Public’s acquiescence was a cowardly act because it refused to fight back, or find a replacement for the lost funding, or (as I requested) substitute an alternative project that would explore the Palestinian story that’s always so hard to tell in New York City, or simply to do the right thing by eating the loss.

      The Public pretends to pursue a noble mission when it tells its public, “The Public serves as an advocate for the theater as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on important issues of our day. These core democratic values, set in place by its visionary founder, Joseph Papp, inform all aspects of The Public’s activities.”

      Annie, put on your reporter’s hat and call Gail Merrifield Papp, Papp’s widow who sits on the Public’s Board. Ask her whether her late husband’s “core democratic values” included a “Palestinian exception.” Find out if she was the blackballer who hung the “Palestinians and Dogs Don’t Perform Here!” sign. If she denies it, ask her why she didn’t honor her “visionary founder’s” core democratic values by blackballing the blackballers and, if that didn’t work, by blasting them, naming names, in a New York Times op ed.

      Funny how in New York, it’s okay to strike back at a BDS movement aimed at ending Israel’s violent apartheid while it’s okay to let the Public Theater declare its own cultural boycott of an internationally-respected Palestinian theater to make sure that Palestinians as a people—whether they be citizens of Israel, captives living under Israel’s illegal occupation, or safely here in America—be silenced.

      Surely there are New York theaters more worthy of patronage and philanthropy than Oskar Eustis’s formerly Public, now Private, Theater.

      • annie on February 27, 2016, 11:19 am

        hi mondoschwartz, thanks for your comment. i didn’t mean to imply it wasn’t a cowardly act, merely that it wasn’t solely cowardly, nor was it vague. they likely folded because they were told to or threatened by financial backers. and probably under threats they would have to endure a smear campaign too.

        has anyone in nyc approached papp’s widow on this incident? perhaps we have some affiliates on the east coast who could dig into this a little bit. it’s a tad out of my range but i’ll mention it to phil. thanks again for your comment.

      • annie on February 28, 2016, 12:05 am

        Ask her whether her late husband’s “core democratic values” included a “Palestinian exception.”

        mondoswartz, after a little research i just ran into this quote, i am afraid the answer to that question would be yes. her late husband’s “core democratic values” did included a “Palestinian exception.”

        It’s been twenty years since liberal stalwart Joe Papp caved to pressure and canceled appearances at the Public Theater of a visiting Palestinian troupe, El Hakawati.

  2. cleo on February 25, 2016, 11:27 am

    Addendum: Last year “The Siege” toured to about a dozen theaters in England and Scotland, receiving much media attention and good reviews. A noisy campaign against the play included demonstrations and leafletting at theater entrances, cries to withdraw funding for the theaters, and outraged statements to the press. Nonetheless, all performances took place without incident, and not one on the whole tour was cancelled.

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