The Economist: A theatre of protest “The Island” opened to packed audiences in Palestine’s Jenin refugee camp

ADAPTED from South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed under apartheid, to an Israeli prison cell, Athol Fugard’s play “The Island” has opened to packed audiences in the Jenin refugee camp on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Confined to a concrete floor set in a sea of sand, two cellmates keep up their morale by rehearsing a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, in which a woman chooses to die rather than obey the king’s decree not to bury her brother, a political dissident. “You won’t sleep peacefully,” Antigone tells the king when he condemns her to death.

Despite its transposed setting, the play retains its poignancy. Almost every Palestinian on the West Bank has a brother, father or husband whom the Israeli authorities have, at one time or another, locked away. At present, 4,500 are behind bars. Jenin may have the highest rate of any town. Imprisonment has become a male rite of passage, as well as a place of higher education: many opt for distance learning at Israeli universities.

Ahmad Rokh, one of the actors in “The Island”, who has served four prison terms, was first put inside at the age of 14. The refugee camp in Jenin was a prime source of suicide-bombers during the second intifada (uprising) that lasted from 2000 to around 2005. Nearly a decade on, it has recovered a sense of humour. The audience laughs at the prisoners dressed in drag.

The theatre has had to overcome a troubled phase. Two years ago its founder, Juliano Khemis, a half-Palestinian, half-Jewish actor, was killed in circumstances that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities have explained. The Freedom Theatre has reopened its drama school after a hiatus of more than a year.

Though the number of Palestinian political prisoners has halved since the height of the second (and most recent) intifada, it is still twice as high as it was a dozen years ago. Those behind bars include hundreds of stone-throwers, 15 members of the Palestinian parliament and 170 people held without trial under “administrative detention”. The Palestinian Authority also runs its own prisons, where scores of leading members of Hamas, the Islamist group that rejects Israel’s existence, have been locked up.

When an Israeli production of the same play was performed at the Hasimta Theatre in Jaffa three years ago, the director, Alon Tiran, observed members of the audience leaving “in a different mindset from when they arrived”. He could not ask for more than that, he said. In Jenin, reactions have been more pronounced. “We are all Antigone,” says Ahmad Jbarah, better known by his nom-de-guerre, Abu Sukar, who attended the play’s opening. “The more the oppressor condemns us as criminals, the more heroic we are,” he says. Mr Sukar was in prison for 27 years for his part in a bombing in Jerusalem in 1975 that caused 15 civilian deaths.

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SoA Women take Shakespeare project to Palestine

 

By Zoë Miller

Columbia Daily Spectator

Published October 1, 2012

The Manhattan Shakespeare Project’s current venture is centered on the creation of original theatrical pieces that will incorporate Shakespeare’s sonnets and Palestinian youth songs.

For the all-female Shakespeare company Manhattan Shakespeare Project, all the world really is a stage­ for cross-cultural communication.  MSP’s newest project, “Shakespeare For A New World: The Palestinian Voice,” is centered on the creation of original theatrical pieces that will incorporate Shakespeare’s sonnets and Palestinian youth songs. Teaching artists Sarah Eismann, SoA ’12, and Jensen Olaya, SoA ’12, will travel to Palestine in late November, accompanied by documentary film director Lena Rudnick, SoA directing candidate, to work with students at the Drama Academy Ramallah and the Jenin refugee camp’s Freedom Theatre.

Eismann said that although “Shakespeare For A New World” and MSP are not political entities, projects “have the potential for having political undertones” by nature of the fact that MSP is an all-female company traveling to a region often associated with more rigid patriarchy. But the purpose of “Shakespeare For A New World,” above all else, is for Eismann and Olaya to work with the students at the Drama Academy Ramallah to create theater and art. Due to their geographical location, the Palestinian theater students are extremely isolated. The project will “help get their voice outside of the borders of Palestine,” Eismann said.

The concept of “Shakespeare For A New World” emerged after Eismann performed in an international production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that took place in 2011 at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Germany. The “Midsummer” cast was comprised of acting students from Folkwang, in addition to students from Columbia, the Drama Academy Ramallah, the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. Eismann said that she was inspired by the beauty of “a Palestinian Helena working with a Romanian Demetrius.” Shakespeare’s words, she realized, could effectively cut across cultural and linguistic barriers. “We found our common world. We found our common language,” she said.

The Folkwang production, Eismann said, led to an epiphany. “If only the world could work this way, we would have no problems,” she said. “It wouldn’t be me against you—it would be what was on that stage.”

Eismann was thrilled when the Drama Academy Ramallah’s director invited her to teach the “Shakespeare For A New World” workshops and make this vision of “a completely united, holistic, humanistic world” more of a reality—at least in theater.

As time went on, the project gained momentum and “exploded into this very idealistic, very grandiose plan.” The intense, six-hours-a-day workshops will include not only actors from the Academy but also teenagers at the Jenin refugee camp, which is one of the oldest, most devastated refugee camps in Palestine. With the help of a team including Rudnick, these workshops and the performances that result from them will be filmed.

In the next five years, Eismann hopes to take the methodology that the MSP team learns from the Ramallah and Jenin workshops and bring it to high school students in New York.

The end goal, she said, is to get diverse communities across the globe to learn about each other, “to use Shakespeare to talk, to create theater, to create peace.”

arts@columbiaspectator.com

This article appeared in Colubmia Spectator