Here’s some joyous news that seems very much in the spirit of the week– the recognition of the 50th anniversary of the permanent Israeli occupation.
Last night the playwrights David Zellnik and Ismail Khalidi announced the launch of a theater project to create and produce works that challenge the dominant cultural narrative about Palestine. They did so in the Lark, a theater space on 42nd Street in New York, to an ebullient standing-room crowd of about 100 people. Ten of the short works were performed to spirited celebration; and the message of the evening was entirely positive: We are being shut out of the mainstream and we will take matters in hand, and we will be heard.
The playwrights said in a joint statement at the start:
We had both written plays about Israel and Palestine that were deemed too political, biased, leftwing, angry, anti Israel, and even anti-Semitic. Artistic directors said they would lose half their boards if they produced our shows and to be fair they probably would.
So– inspired by the content and dissemination of Caryl Churchill’s great play, Seven Jewish Children, which she has shared with the world post-Gaza–
We decided to take matters into our own hands, to circumvent censorship.
Here is the website for Break the Wall, with 13 plays so far, “to be performed anywhere by anyone, in classrooms, in theaters and on the streets.” Khalidi and Zellnik hope to have 25 by the end of the year, and another 25 by the end of the Nakba anniversary year, next year. They have simple requirements:
To address the issue of Palestine Israel in such a way that illuminates the actual power balance of the conflict and avoids the mainstream media’s search for balance…. to give witness and urgency to… the ongoing human rights disaster of the occupation and apartheid.
And they ask that the plays be inspired/linked to an actual event.
A handful of skilled diverse players (I’d name a couple but that would be unfair to the others) then presented ten of the works, humorous, lacerating, experimental, and yes, too, uplifting. Israeli soldiers peopled the stage, so did Palestinian mothers and, silently, Hitler. The American attitude of progressive-except-Palestine was lampooned. Happily, the writers Naomi Wallace, Noelle Ghoussaini, Betty Shemiah, Laura Maria Censabella, Kia Corthron, Stan Richardson, Yussef El Guindi, and Khalidi and Zellnik, too, would all rather laugh and observe than preach.
The mood was one of a page being turned: that the 50th anniversary of occupation has given strength and undeniability to the leftwing criticism of the occupation. An audience of consciously political people is demanding that the matter be addressed by American culture; and we are sure to influence the mainstream.
The program last night included a fine statement by Alisa Solomon addressing the transformative power of the works:
The political suspension of disbelief that governs so much of US discourse on Israel and Palestine has sought for decades to make the occupation invisible and the Nakba unutterable. For nearly 40 years, plays that have dared to tell Palestinian stories or challenge standard Zionist narratives have been shut out of major venues and sometimes silenced altogether, from Joe Papp reneging on a plan to present El Hakawati at the Public Theater in the late 1980s to the panicked backing away from the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie at New York Theatre Workshop some 10 years ago (a reaction from which the theater admirably learned and made amends).
Break the Wall… seizes on theater’s rare power– in myriad forms, from street plays to family dramas, abstract experiments, raucous comedies, you name it– to ignite radical empathy, to shake us out of complacencies, to kindle our political commitment and creativity. It’s not just a good idea. It’s a necessary one.