Theater Activism

In Palestinian Theater's New York Performance, the Play After the Play is the Thing

The title of the play “The Island,” first performed in Cape Town in 1973, refers to the notorious apartheid-era prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. It focuses on two political prisoners who share a cell, engaging in back-breaking forced physical labor by day and rehearsing for a prison production of Sophocles' Antigone by night. “The Island” won international critical acclaim, a run on Broadway and a 1974 Tony Award. It is today regarded as a pre-eminent artistic commentary on apartheid.

On Wednesday evening Faisal Abu Althayjaa and Ahmed Alrakh of the Jenin Freedom Theater performed an adapted version in English for a warmly sympathetic audience at the Fourth Street Theater in New York City's East Village.

The Freedom Theater was established in Jenin Refugee Camp by the late Juliano Mer-Kahmis, an prominent actor and political activist who was born in Israel to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. His mother Arna originally brought theater to the children of the refugee camp as a creative means of working through the trauma and isolation of living in that besieged and impoverished place during the years of the First Intifada. Juliano went along to film his mother's project, which resulted in the documentary Arna's Children. After her death, he co-founded the Freedom Theater.

During the post-performance Q&A session, the actors explained that they had first staged the play in Arabic for Palestinian audiences to mark the recent prisoner release. It elicited emotional responses in a place where every family has a loved one serving time in an Israeli military prison for a political offense. The conversation between the actors and the audience ended up being a sort of play-after-the play (as Antigone is the play-within-the play). It was the most engaging part of the evening.

While the production values were good and the actors' performances were full of energy and charisma, they were hobbled by their accents and their imperfect grasp of English, particularly in reciting their soliloquies. Chunks of dialogue were nearly impossible to understand, obscured by poor enunciation and thick accents. I sensed that the actors did not fully connect with their lines at many points. In a YouTube clip of Ahmed Alrukh's performance in Arabic, he channels moving emotions that were not really discernible in the English performance.

The audience did not seem to notice or care whether or not they could hear the words of the play. They were there to express their solidarity with the Jenin Freedom Theater and the Palestinian cause. When Najla Said, daughter of the late Edward Said, stood up to announce that she and her mother were in the audience and that the Freedom Theater represented all her father had fought for, the audience gasped and applauded. The moderator, who asked the audience several times to “take a moment” to appreciate the occasion and its cause, blinked away tears.

That was just a minute or so after Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, who plays Winston, gulped from a glass he had been offered, made a shocked face and spat the liquid out upon discovering that he had accidentally drunk sparkling wine—forbidden to Muslims. He caught my eye and grinned, full of self-confidence and charm and not the least bit embarrassed.

At another point, Ahmed Alrakh described an incident during the Israeli army's 2002 invasion of the Jenin Refugee Camp. A child at the time, his most valued possession was a PlayStation sent to him by an uncle who had gone to work in Saudi Arabia. When the army destroyed his house, he stood outside weeping, which attracted a crowd of journalists who pointed their cameras at him and asked if he had a relative buried in the wreckage. No, he sobbed, he had lost his PlayStation inside.

In recounting these anecdotes and laughing at their own punch lines, the young men were asserting their individuality. They might be fighting for a political cause with their art, but they were more than just activists.

Art is resistance, said Freedom Theater chairperson Bilal Saadi. Speaking in Arabic as Abu Alhajayaa translated, he continued, “If there is a Third Intifada, it will be an intifada of cultural resistance.” Occupation, he pointed out, is in the minds—not only in walls and checkpoints. He described the play as a “scream against apartheid.” Saadi was imprisoned at age 16, just before the Oslo Accords were signed, for the crime of carrying a Palestinian flag.

For all their harsh personal experiences, or perhaps because of them, the men from Jenin seemed to be firmly grounded and blessed with a sense of humor, even when they were arguing over who had the right to declare Juliano Mer Khamis a shaheed, or martyr for his people—the Jenin Refugee Camp, or the Palestinian Authority. (Mer Khamis was killed in 2011 by gunmen who opened fire on his car outside Jenin. The perpetrators were never captured.) The 45-minute performance was botth engaging and frustrating to watch, but the play-after-the-play wins a big thumbs up from this reviewer.

The Island will be performed in Arabic on Saturday night.