Category Archives: Theater

Coming Soon: Martin Luther King Jr. in Palestine

Last March, Academy Award nominated documentary director Connie Field went to Palestine with Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute, to film Carson’s play about King performed by the Palestinian National Theater and an African-American gospel choir.  Along the way, Field documented the accompanying cultural exchange between the two peoples – and the growing consciousness of the African-American choir members as they bore witness to the harsh realities of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank.

I’ve long believed that the growing nonviolent movement in Palestine is reminiscent of the American civil rights movement in so many ways – and I’ll wager this film certainly has the potential to drive this point home in a powerful way. (Click above to see the trailer and you’ll see what I mean.)

Field and her production company, Clarity Films, are seeking donations via Kickstarter in order to complete the film. Click here if you’d like to contribute. You can also learn more about this worthy project through their Facebook page.

Jenin Freedom Theatre Raided: Please Respond with Support!

Readers of this blog know I’ve been a huge fan of the Jenin Freedom Theatre ever since my visit there this past December.  I’m saddened to report that its facility was recently raided by the IDF.

From a 7/27 Freedom Theater press release:

Special Forces of the Israeli Army attacked the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp at approximately 03:30 this morning. Ahmad Nasser Matahen, a night guard and technician student at the theatre woke up by heavy blocks of stone being hurled at the entrance of the theatre.

As he opened the door he found masked and heavily armed Israeli Special Forces around the theatre. Ahmed says that the army threw heavy blocks of stone at the theatre, “they told me to open the door to the theatre. They told me to raise my hands and forced me to take my pants down. I thought my time had come, that they would kill me. My brother that was with me was handcuffed.“

The location manager of The Freedom Theatre, Adnan Naghnaghiye was arrested and taken away to an unknown location together with Bilal Saadi, a member of the board of The Freedom Theatre. When the general manager of the theatre Jacob Gough from UK and the co-founder of the theatre Jonatan Stanczak from Sweden arrived to the scene they were forced to squat next to a family with four small children surrounded by about 50 heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Jonatan says: “Whenever we tried to tell them that they are attacking a cultural venue and arresting members of the theatre we were told to shut up and they threatened to kick us, I tried to contact the civil administration of the army to clarify the matter but the person in charge hung up on me.“

The Freedom Theatre is still reeling from the murder of its director, Juliano Mer Khamis last April – and now this. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate that an institution whose only mission is to give hope and courage to the children of Jenin is physically under attack by both fundamentalist Muslims and the Israel Defense Forces.

Please click on the clips above and below to learn about the Jenin Freedom Theatre and why so many of us are inspired by its work. Then click here and please support them with a donation.

Israeli Artists Say No to Performing in Ariel – and Support is Growing!

Very big and inspiring news:

Last week, fifty Israeli actors, directors and producers publicly released a letter saying they would not perform in a new multi-million dollar theater center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and that they would continue to do so until there was an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Their stand drew immediate outrage from the Israeli government. PM Netanyahu, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz responded by threatening to deny government funding to any  cultural institutions that refuse to hold performances in the Occupied Territories. Netayahu released a statement accusing the Israeli artists of joining an “international delegitimization campaign” adding that “the last thing the state needs to do is fund bodies that are promoting boycotts from within.”

These events had a powerful and galvanizing effect within Israeli society. Almost as immediately, over 150 leading Israeli academics and writers (including authors Amos Oz and David Grossman) came to the defense of the artists. The boycott quickly became a central issue of discussion in the Israeli press – for its part, Ha’aretz’s staff editorial stated:

Theater actors are not marionettes, and cultural coercion of artists who fear for their livelihood does not befit a freedom-loving country. Cultural and academic institutions that receive budgetary support from the state do not owe it obedience in return. On the contrary, the government should be thankful for the existence of institutions that constitute such a vital interest for Israeli society.

Now it appears the struggle has moved to the United States. I’m so incredibly proud to see that Jewish Voice for Peace has now organized a support statement by over 150 American and European theater and film professionals – including Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Eve Ensler, Tony Kushner, Cynthia Nixon, Ed Asner, among others.

Here’s the text of the statement:

On August 27th, dozens of Israeli actors, directors, and playwrights made the brave decision not to perform in Ariel, one of the largest of the West Bank settlements, which by all standards of international law are clearly illegal.  As American actors, directors, critics and playwrights, we salute our Israeli counterparts for their courageous decision.

Most of us are involved in daily compromises with wrongful acts. When a group of people suddenly have the clarity of mind to see that the next compromise looming up before them is an unbearable one  — and when they somehow find the strength to refuse to cross that line  —  we can’t help but be overjoyed and inspired and grateful.

It’s thrilling to think that these Israeli theatre artists have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation which they know to be wrong, which violates international law and which is impeding the hope for a just and lasting peace for Israelis an Palestinians alike.  They’ve made a wonderful decision, and they deserve the respect of people everywhere who dream of justice. We stand with them.

This is big. Indeed, as the government’s apoplectic response clearly demonstrates, it represents much more than a mere symbolic stand. To stand up against performing in Ariel, which Netanyahu has described as the “Capital of Samaria,” means to stand up against the very heart of Israel’s settlement enterprise.

It is also the most significant internal cultural boycott to ever take place in Israel – and the support of the artistic community around the world shows that there is a growing constituency of prominent figures who are willing to publicly speak out against Israel’s impunity.

In other words, the artistic community is stepping up and going to the places to which our politicians seem unwilling to go. Bravo!

Rohina Malik Unveils Our Common Humanity

Last night JRC was honored to host a performance of the one-woman show “Unveiled,” by Rohina Malik. Breathtaking.

Rohina is a playwright, actress and solo artist of South Asian heritage who was born in London and emigrated to Chicago when she was 15.  She is an impressive and important contemporary artist – and her identity as an American Muslim woman clearly plays an important role in her art.

“Unveiled” is constructed around five monologues by five Muslim women. During the course of the play, each of them greets the audience in turn, “welcoming” us with tea.  Each woman tells the story of their lives, explains their Muslim culture and shares the experience of living as a Muslim woman in the post 9/11 world.

For her appearance at JRC last night, Rohina performed three monologues: “Maryam,” a Pakistani-American who has a dress making shop on Chicago’s Devon Avenue; “Shabana,” a young rapper of South Asian descent who was born and raised in London; and “Layla,” a Chicago restaurant owner from the Middle East who lost a brother to the fall of the twin towers.

It’s difficult to convey the cumulative effect these women had upon the audience. Rohina’s performances cut to the heart of painful and complicated political issues – but even more profound was the immediately empathy Rohina was able to conjure for us through these remarkable women. In a relatively short amount of time, she was able to bring us through an entire gamut of emotions – and in the end, the common humanity we shared with these women was palpable to everyone in the room.

Following the play we had an equally powerful post-performance discussion facilitated by the play’s director, Ann Filmer. Nearly 250 people were in attendance – including many members of the Chicagoland Muslim community – and it was truly a tribute to Rohina’s art that so many members of this large and diverse group were inspired to share deeply personal comments about their own lives and struggles.

If you live in the Chicago area, you should know that “Unveiled” will be starting a run at the Victory Gardens Theater on March 24. Highly, highly recommended.

Theater of Crisis in Israel/Palestine

It seems that two remarkable, powerfully self-reflective theater productions are currently being staged in the same little patch of land: “Gaza-Ramallah,” a Palestinian play produced by The Haya Theater in Ramallah; and “Bat-Yam-Tykocin,” staged jointly by The Habima Theater and the Contemporary Theater of Wroclaw in Tel Aviv.

For its part, “Gaza-Ramallah” appears to skewer Gazan and West Bank culture with equal opportunity satire. Interestingly, Palestinian actor/playwright Imad Farajin chooses not to dwell on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but instead turns his sights on Gaza’s materialistic consumer culture. He seems to be just as unsparing in his portayal of Palestinian Authority corruption in the West Bank.  From an Amira Hass feature in Ha’aretz:

It is a culture where Palestinian businessmen, politicians, dialogue and research institution directors associate with Israeli counterparts and former senior military officers and the Shin Bet security service. A culture that allows a few individuals to accumulate wealth at the expense of the struggle against occupation. It is the “Oslo culture,” which has given peace, dialogue and coexistence a bad name.

“Bat-Yam-Tykocin” appears to be equally as emotionally/politically raw.  The pair of plays, written by an Israeli playwrignt and a Polish playwright respectively, is performed in Polish and Hebrew and takes head-on some of the common assumptions Jews and Poles harbor about the Holocaust.  The results seem to be, understandably enough, fairly challenging and painful – you can read more about the production in another newsy Ha’aretz piece.

I’m consistently struck by the ways theater can address the inner truths of complex issues in ways that far transcend media reports and history books. And I’m heartened that in the midst of this tragic crisis, there are still Palestinians and Jews who are ready to plumb their respective experiences with unflinching honesty…

The clip up top features “Bat Yam” in rehearsal; below you can see an excerpt from “Gaza-Ramallah.” (No subtitles, however – you may have to find an Arabic-speaking friend to translate).