On the Road to Palestine: Six American Playwrights Come upon the Checkpoints-Both Military and Metaphorical-That Define the Daily Realities of Palestinian Life

Article excerpt

In June 2002, playwright Naomi Wallace traveled with British theatre director David Gothard to the Middle East. They met with Palestinian theatre artists in the Occupied Territories and set up meetings for a second trip that Wallace had, for years, been envisioning--one that would bring together a group of American playwrights and Palestinian theatre artists.

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In August 2002, that trip became a reality. Wallace, with the help of her friend Connie Julian, invited American playwrights Kia Corthron, Tony Kushner, Robert O'Hara, Betty Shamieh and Lisa Schlesinger to join her. The trip lasted seven days. It was financed by the playwrights themselves and by outside contributions from individuals.

This collectively written account of the trip is followed by six very personal essays in which each of the writers assesses and reflects on his or her experiences.

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OUR PRIMARY PURPOSE WAS TO MEET WITH PALESTINIAN theatre artists. We wanted to learn about the kinds of theatre being made under the harsh circumstances in Palestinian cities and in the camps: how playwrights, actors, designers and directors--our Palestinian colleagues--negotiated the checkpoints, curfews, occupations, gun and missile fire and catastrophic economy, as well as tensions and problems within Palestinian society. We wanted to see for ourselves, feeling as we did that the sporadic, lopsided glimpses into Palestinian life available in America were neither particularly trustworthy nor sufficient to the task of trying to comprehend the ongoing conflict and carnage, the appalling suffering endured on both sides--but especially, and for many long decades, by the Palestinians.

We wanted to make human contact with people we frequently hear dismissed or described as less than human. We hoped to break down some of the barriers dividing us from the Palestinian people. We went to gather ideas for projects we might undertake, together or individually, to facilitate an exchange between Palestinian and American theatre artists, to provide material and educational assistance to Palestinian theatre workers. We feel that personal contact, dialogue, lived experience, exploration and community-building are not ancillary to but rather the core--the life's blood--of our profession.

We stayed in a hotel in East Jerusalem, from whence we made day trips to Ramallah, Al Maghar, Hebron, Bethlehem, the Aida Refugee camp, Gaza City and the "beach camp" for refugees in Gaza. We toured various settlements as well, and one evening we drove to Tel Aviv, where we met with a large group of progressive Israeli theatre artists. Throughout our seven-day journey we met women and men who, against all odds, are creating theatre. Their immediate experience of theatre's power to make sense of misery and injustice and terror, of its power to organize and to heal, were incredibly inspiring, as were their courage, intelligence, decency and hospitality.

In Ramallah, the Ashtar Theatre, led by Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem, produces a show each year that, through the character of a cantankerous Palestinian patriarch named Ali Shakur, tackles issues of collaboration, corruption, even rape and incest, emphasizing Palestinian agency rather than Israeli brutality.

The Inad ("Stubborn") Theatre in Beit Jala, is run primarily by women. Two of its members, producer Marina Barham and director Raeda Ghazaleh, told us hair-raising stories of the siege in Bethlehem, of their determination to rehearse their own work and hold workshops for traumatized children and adults, even in defiance of strictly imposed curfews. Our meeting took place in the theatre lobby, against a wall that still showed the traces of the enormous hole an Israeli missile had blasted away.

Adnan Tarabashi, who runs a puppet theatre in the Druze village of Al Maghar based in a center for the Palestinian deaf--a group for whom almost no services exist--is also a playwright and a filmmaker. …