Edited by Steven Orlov and Samah Sabawi
533 pp. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press
Reviewed by Mary-Lou Zeitoun* (Canada)
From South African protest theatre during the apartheid era to Ireland’s “Theatre of the Troubles,” plays of resistance have always seemed to emerge during political oppression and censorship. Even subjects long considered taboo by mainstream media manage to flourish at such moments. It is, therefore, somehow fitting that a quote from Eve Ensler, author of the once controversial Vagina Monologues, appears on the cover of Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas calling it “a brave, passionate and collective call, a theatrical catalyst for investigation and resistance.”
It is certainly that. It is also a call for theatrical action. As the editors note in their preface, “Despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest and most inflammatory ongoing regional hostilities in the past seventy years, most major theatres . . . have not commissioned, solicited, or produced plays on the subject, many for political more than artistic reasons.”
Should these plays be produced? Most have and should be done again. The seven works are clearly well-chosen and ready to be staged. For background and support, the book also includes a preface, two introductions and authors’ “Reflections.” Set in Israel, Palestine and North America, all these plays effectively represent issues on the minds of the collective Jewish or Palestinian Diaspora.
Stylistically, they employ a treasure chest of devices ranging from realism to surrealism, from text to music and, at one point, even dance (Israeli soldiers moving in swivel chairs in Twenty-One Positions). Gripping, ambitious, yet, somehow, still personal and intimate, they address war, holocaust, infertility, torture, love and even murder as mystery. They are never didactic despite their difficult subjects: inhuman torture to anti-Semitism and the bleak horrors of the Holocaust. Importantly, all sides are respected. The Palestinians are even humanized.
Edited by Australian-Canadian playwright Samah Sabawi, represented in the volume by Tales of a City By The Sea (a love story set in a Gaza under bombardment) and Canadian Stephon Orlov, represented by Sperm Count (about a Jewish couple accidently implanted with an Arab embryo), the volume, for Orlov, grew out of the toxic aftermath of 9/11 America; a political climate that would not allow for sympathetic representation of any Arab character.
“A decade later,” he writes, “the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza . . . prompted me to pull Sperm Count from my files and the idea of editing this anthology was conceived.” (He surely meant the pun).
Both editors reference the suffocating climate they encountered around their subject matter. Indeed, while working on the volume, outrages continued: City University of New York revoked Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s honorary degree for his public criticisms of Israel; and Washington D.C.’s Theatre J fired artistic director Ari Roth for showcasing plays written by Arab-American playwrights. Even in Australia, Sabawi’s play was attacked by the Victoria State Parliament before it was allowed to remain in the high school curriculum.
“The twin pitfalls of writing about Israel and Palestine are: 1) nobody cares, and 2) everyone is offended,” writes U.S. playwright Karen Hartman, while Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh (2011 UNESCO Young Artist For International Dialogue) ingenuously muses in her introduction about the violence of students at a Noam Chomsky lecture in New York: “What if they had GUNS?” She then realises that in Israel and Palestine they do.
Bitterenders (2015 ReOrient Festival, San Francisco) by Hannah Khalil addresses a situation that actually happened. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian family is forced to share their home with settlers. With dark humour, it details the loss of a baby during the Naqba (the deportation of the Palestinians in 1948) and a mother’s descent into insanity.
Facts by Arthur Milner (produced at Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, in 2010, and in Palestine, in 2012) reads like an engaging thoughtful TV script piece whose heart lies in the banter between two policemen, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, who jointly try to solve the murder of an archeologist. Why would anyone murder an archeologist? they wonder. Dangerous territory they realize since archeology speaks to the provenance of both ancient religions and civilisations.
The Peacemaker by Natasha Greenblatt (produced at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2013) is set in both Israel and Canada. Fueled by original songs, it tells the story of Sophie, a Jewish Canadian woman who, in an act of genuine hubris, brings a Palestinian children’s choir to an Israeli centre for holocaust survivors. Suffice it to say, she brings more harm than good.
“When I was a kid, Israel seemed like the happy ending to the young adult Holocaust fiction I ravenously consumed,” writes Greenblatt in her “Reflection.” In the play, Wael, who runs a music centre in the West Bank, asks Sophie the difficult question: “Do you think there would be an Israel without the holocaust?”
Sabra Falling (premiered at the Pangea Theatre in Minneapolis in 2017) is by Lebanese-American playwright Ismail Khalidi. Set in 1983, the year that 1,300 Palestinians were massacred in the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps while being “protected” by Israeli soldiers. The play uses poetry during the bombing scenes as, suggests the writer, the experience does not bear the presence of mind for full sentences.
The collection ends with a collaborative play that addresses the wall separating Israel and Palestine: Twenty-One Positions: A Cartographic Dream of the Middle East by Abdelfattah Abu Srour, Lisa Schlesinger and Naomi Wallace. Produced in New York, in association with The Public Theatre, it too examines the fallout connected by issues such as provenance and archeology.
Fascinating, heart-stopping and, even, sometimes, outrageous, these seven plays collectively are an education in political conflict of the kind that seems to be affecting every part of our world today. They should be required reading for anyone who truly understands that ignorance is not bliss and that education is really not so hard.
Clearly, the stories we can learn from are out there. We just need to open a book like this to hear them. Or, even better, we just need to find more companies world-wide willing to produce them on their stages.
*Mary-Lou Zeitoun is a Canadian-Palestinian journalist and author based in Toronto. A winner of the New England Young Adults Book Award, she has contributed to various Canadian magazines, such as Elle, More and Glow, as well as newspapers, such as the Toronto Globe and Mail and Now. In 2017, she was Writer-in-residence at the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver, a centre dedicated to narratives surrounding issues of peace and reconciliation.