As We Open, Triumphantly, Thoughtful Responses Pour In

Here’s how the curtain speech to last night’s Sold Out opening night began: “The President of the United States might not be here with us tonight, but in a way he is, with his words. This from The Washington Post lead-story of a few days ago:

President Obama comforted a community suffused with grief and summoned the nation to recommit to a more civil public discourse as he delivered a eulogy Wednesday evening urging Americans to talk with each other “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

“He mights as well have been writing the introduction to Return To Haifa.”

I thanked the 20 foundations, funders, government organizations that made this production possible. From the National Endowment for the Arts to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, we saw an extraordinary coming together of financial support to underwrite a show that asks very provocative questions about “returning”–about possession and sharing–how we come to acknowledge a mutual stake in a land–and a mess–of our own making.

The performance was the best yet. Adjustments in the tone of the actors’ work–going for less “entertainment” early on–a lighter touch with the humor–some key cuts and word changes in the projections (which we’ll discuss another time)–made for a more moving and balanced forward thrust to the show, which played quite differently on Saturday night. That first preview started big and boffo, but was a little colder and more brittle as it moved to its resolution. The humility we were seeking in the performances–the balance we sought to tie all the characters into the same mode of expression–was achieved on Sunday, the result of important fine-tuning—which of course, is one of the great things about doing theater. In part, these adjustments of nuance came about because of dialogue with our audience; an audience that’s smart and supportive and diverse and allows us to filter intelligent feedback and make the adjustments THAT WE WANT TO MAKE based on how our work is landing with different members of our audience.

In that spirit, and with permission from the letter writer, I want to share with you a long response to our first preview, both supportive, yet also critical, in illuminating ways. The letter, by a Palestinian-American friend who, because of her work in the community wishes to remain anonymous, reflects on both the delicacy of the production (and pointing to some of the more jarring moments that have since, I think, been toned down), and also to a reaction to our first on-stage respondent (see our earlier posting), who reflected an Israeli government position on the one hand (an enlightened one, shall we add?), as well as a very personal response as an Israeli to a very provocative play.

Here’s the letter, edited for publication:

Dear Ari:

I know this is unsolicited, but I wanted to give you my reaction to the play and my experience of last night. I woke up at 6 am with all these thoughts so I decided to write them down and send them to you. I am speaking as a human being with a heart, and as a Palestinian-American.

Overall I felt the production was extraordinary—not only because of the terrific acting and well-written script, but also because I could see its “cutting edge” aspects. For an Israeli, and an American-Jewish, audience, this seems to be unprecedented. Boaz noted that at the end, and I can really see it. For an Israeli audience, especially, to be presented with the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba side by side with the narrative of the Holocaust, in a sensitive and emotional way, is a real feat. I salute Boaz for this. I can imagine the flak he and the Cameri got (I read a bit about this through your web site). There are so many Israelis who stick their necks out like this and as a Palestinian I want to support such efforts wholeheartedly. I was happy to meet Boaz and Sinai and shake their hands before the play.

And here is the rub for me: if I agree to view this as a quintessentially Israeli production, meant for an Israeli audience, then I feel good about the play. It is exceptional, provocative, opens lots of doors. It puts the Israeli narrative in a jarringly realistic context and invites the audience to explore those painful (at least it suggests that they should be painful) aspects of Israeli history that Israeli society has not come to terms with. For example, I would venture to guess that most Israelis and Jewish Americans would not think at all—in a critical way—about the fact that the house was simply given to Miriam and Ephraim in 1948. It was such an accepted gesture in the play (and in Israeli history) that Jews who had survived the Holocaust were owed such things, despite the fact that these homes were owned and lived in by Palestinians before them. What did that loss really mean for the Palestinians who fled? And even in the play the thorny issue was whether Miriam and Ephraim had a family, because it was family housing, and not anything else. Anyway, I think the play illuminates many of these central themes that are usually avoided in Israeli and American Jewish understanding of the history. I applaud Boaz for this and hope that his play is seen by many people. It carries many important messages to open eyes. It was a great decision for Theater J to bring it to DC.

On the other hand, if I start to look at the play more objectively, as perhaps speaking to other audiences, especially the Palestinian one, I find many problems. Most of them are because I know this as originally a Palestinian story—Ghassan Kanafani’s iconic narrative of Palestinian dispossession, memory, and return—and Gaon’s play crafted it into an Israeli story. I cried a couple of times, both of them during Safiyyeh’s lines, because she really embodied that tragic story of loss, longing, desperation. This is the Palestinian story, and it is my family’s story. Like Said and Safiyyeh, my parents were living in Haifa in 1948. They had a two-year-old son and ran with him, after seeing their neighbor shot in the street, to the harbor where they fled by boat to Lebanon. They left everything behind. They contemplated a “return” all their lives and finally went back only once, in 1995, to confront the ghosts of their past and the tremendous void in their personal histories. It was painful and bittersweet, and extremely difficult. Till the day he died my father always said, “We should never have left”—despite Deir Yassin and all the violence in their neighborhood and in Haifa, which we had to keep reminding him of.

Of course I am horrified by the experience of the Holocaust, and I cannot even begin to comprehend its enormity and profound impact on the Jewish psyche. From the Israeli perspective the Holocaust is always juxtaposed with the Nakba, as if it justified it. Although realistic in that one preceded the other historically and had huge impact on Israeli history, for Palestinians, the reality is always the same: for whatever reason—compelling or not, horrifying or not—they were left homeless and displaced. So the play reiterated that linkage for me. It was most clear to me during the dialogues between Miriam and Safiyyeh, the ones when the audience often laughed. Like I said in my comment after the play, it was almost as if Miriam’s humor minimized Safiyyeh’s experience, made it seem less credible or important. Safiyyeh would make very moving and emotional statements, and Miriam’s reactions would be dismissive, glib, almost belittling. At one point they do hug on stage, and seem to have a woman-to-woman, or mother-to-mother, connection, and that was beautiful. But it wasn’t enough for me after all the “funny” remarks by Miriam. It was as if Safiyyeh’s personal narrative was secondary, and it was seen through Miriam’s subjective eyes. I think I need to read the play and see if Boaz really wrote it this way, because that was the gut reaction I had, especially with all the laughter by the audience.

I recognize that I have my own perspective and see the world (the play) through my own lens. So I am adding my own interpretations, to be sure. I have to say that it was not at all helpful to have your speaker at the end. Why was he chosen? That is when I realized that I was not an intended part of the audience. He was not speaking to me; his remarks were directed to Israelis and American Jews. That’s when it hit me that this play was not meant for me. And I did not appreciate his arrogance. Yes, Jews need to understand “the other narrative,” but his words truly rang hollow. It was so clear that he was just saying this because it sounded right, and that Jews should do this so that they can go on with their own lives—rather than work to formulate a new and more inclusive solution that redresses the Israeli state’s injustices toward the Palestinians. I believe that this is not just a feel-good kind of thing for the Israelis and American Jews: they need to take responsibility and do something about it. The speaker’s words seemed to encourage a “let’s tell the Palestinians that we understand what happened to them, therefore we will assuage our guilt, and then we can move on with the Jewish/Zionist project in Palestine.” Honestly, Ari, hearing him at the end really destroyed my comfort in your theater. Many Jewish voices in the audience made me feel much better, but your speaker was not a good pick, especially on the first night of the play. Forgive me for being a bit harsh here, as I know you and your staff have worked hard to bring in diverse voices to help elucidate the myriad issues the play brings up.

I also want to say that I appreciated your manner of facilitating the discussion, your warmth in making all of our “other” voices welcome, your encouraging the audience to go below the surface and question, and your inclusive way of handling things. Thank you.

All the best,


* * *

A new response, from Council member Ann Gilbert:

This was a beautiful thought-provoking play. It appealed the the ‘older” crowd because it was simple story that took place during a period that we could remember. I could remember the 6-day war and Frank could remember 1948! It was a bold, ambitious project and I give you an A+ for making it happen. I was so proud of Theater J last evening and so glad to be a Council member….