After the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s production of “The Siege” made its long-awaited American premiere at NYU last night, I slipped out of the obligatory post-production panel discussion on to Washington Square and saw the several actors standing on the sidewalk figuring out what they were going to do with the young night. I felt the disjunction that you feel when you see an actor after a show, but even more keenly than usual. These half dozen young men had just been playing Palestinian revolutionaries with guns, and stirringly, as if it were their own story, filled with anguish and defiance and rage and screams and smoke and violence. Now they looked like any actors I have seen outside so many American shows, young good looking people, their makeup stripped off, their hair wet and swept back, backpacks on one shoulder. I stood back trying to figure who was who. They looked different, and still the aura of the strong characters they had played hung about them but they were not claimed by the roles. They wore good jeans and boots and jackets, and there were a couple of women friends laughing alongside them. They were glamorous young people who felt very lucky, and they were about to go out and have more fun.
It brought home the sense of the play itself. Palestinians are as human as anyone you know. They do not want to kill you, or be killed, or threaten you. They only wish to take part, to be granted dignity, to participate freely in the world’s commons.
And: it never happens.
It never happens that Americans get to see them as normal players in the varied roles of modern life. They don’t get to tell their stories. They are censored and maligned and blockaded. This show was shut down for a year because of a fearful American board of directors. A lot of the company had to jump through hoops to get out of Palestine. Some didn’t get out.
The Siege is overwhelming, a scarring historical drama by Nabil Al-Raee about a group of militants holed up in the Nativity Church during the Second intifada with the Israeli army shooting at them and George W. Bush trying to make them disappear. The action is unrelenting and also utterly recognizable as human. Watching them you say, I would do the same if I had guts. I would tell my brother or son or sister they were doing the right thing. When the Israelis put the mother on the phone to talk to a militant leader played by Faisal Abualhayjaa and she says she will cut off the breast that fed him if he surrenders, I thought, There are American mothers who would say the same thing.
Those intimate moments are the best ones. When the big awkward quiet bearded militant played by Ghantus Wael breaks out of militant character and declares that all he has ever wanted is a normal life in this land, to marry his beloved and raise a family and hope that his children can dream of better things, we feel the simple poetics of his condition.. I wanted to leap to my feet and roar and clap for him. When the goofy and seemingly indifferent militant played by Rabee Hanani says his family were made refugees in 1948 and then he became a fugitive from his refugee camp when he joined the resistance, and now, by accepting a deal to leave the church, he will be exiled from his homeland and family indefinitely, we are forced to consider the Palestinian experience in all its bitter unending reality.
That is the historic achievement of this production, of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, and of NYU’s Skirball Center; they have all worked hard to present a real picture of Palestine. For an hour and a half you are transported entirely inside the Palestinian narrative. There is no coerced attempt at balance, there are just Palestinians, joking, swearing, fearful, resisting, wondering at their fate. It’s all that anyone seeks to do in a work of art: to tell their truth. I have not seen this consciousness conveyed so genuinely before in a mainstream cultural space. No wonder that the Public Theater shut down this same production a year ago. No wonder that the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis seems to apologize for the censorship by writing a lovely statement promoting this “necessary” production.
“The very essence of the drama is empathy, the act of seeing through the eyes of someone different than yourself,” he begins.
As for the politics, my favorite part of the play is all the black humor about Israeli hasbara. The militants say that the oppressor is the oppressed in the eyes of the world, and the victim is the persecutor. How do we fight that propaganda machine? It is a running theme and a cruel joke.
We are all involved in that battle; and last night’s premiere was a shocking insult to that order. Please go to the Siege, please enter that world and applaud these messengers.