Wednesday, February 19, 2003

My Visit to Paradise

As reported, I went to see the Cincinnati Playhouse reading of Paradise last night. I'd say about 300 people showed up. Everyone was well behaved, and the play was moving. I'm sorry that it probably won't be performed.


The Cincinnati Playhouse is a local theater company. One of their activities is an educational outreach program, where they do short topical plays for highschool children. Overall, the program seems fairly cool.

Unfortunately for the Playhouse, they decided to commission a play based on the famous Newsweek article that contrasted Ayat al-Akhras, an 18 year old suicide bomber, with 17 year old Israeli Rachel Levy, one of her victims. Last December, they held a preview of the play, and invited a few members of the Jewish and Muslim communities to watch it and offer suggestions. According the Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell and Cincinnati's Citybeat, the Muslim portion of the audience went after the play, criticizing it for not portraying the suicide bomber as more devout and not portraying the Israelis as more clearly evil. Some people were suspicious about the fact that the play's director was Jewish. (The Playhouse later replaced the director in order to defuse some of the criticism.)

A few local Muslims began criticizing the play at the Cincinnati Human Rights Commission and at local schools that had scheduled performances. Ultimately, the Playhouse cancelled the run, and O'Malley apparently hit back with an e-mail in which he claimed to have been "fatwa-ed."

The Playhouse staff played this angle down at the reading. They alluded to strong feelings at the earlier reading, and to an "angry and wounded playwright," but basically said that the December reading ultimately strengthened the play, and that they hope to present it sooner or later, in the schools if they can get support, or in a short showing at the Playhouse if they can't.

The Play

We saw a reading of the sixth draft of Paradise. (Last December's reading was the fifth draft). In short, the play follows five characters: Fatima, a teen-aged Palestinian girl living in the Dehaishe refugee camp; Omar, her cousin visiting from America; Bessam, a recruiter for "a splinter group of El-Fatah"; Sara, a Jewish teenager returning to Israel after five years in California; and Shoshonnah, Sarah's mother.

Fatima and Sara both begin the play as somewhat hopeful teenaged girls, but each loses hope in peace as the play continues. Fatima is introduced as a prizewinning writer, and is presented with a choice between the Americanized Omar, who wants to bring her to America where she can go to college, and Bessam, who feeds her feelings of resentment and attempts to recruit her. She starts out resentful but hopeful, but eventually loses all hope.

Meanwhile, Sara starts out as more of a typical American, frustrated with living behind guards, but eventually reconnects with her Jewish heritage. Similar to Fatima, Sara begins the play wishing for peace, but by the end is frustrated and nearly hopeless.

The play tries to tell the Palestinian and Israeli stories, without judging between them. Sara's mother mentions that one reason they live in a settlement is that the government subsidizes their house, but also explains that their settlement is built next to a 2700 year old Jewish ruin. Later, she explains that the largest part of her reason for moving to the settlement was sheer frustration at what she understood to be the threat to push her into the sea. Sara's biggest turning point is when her two closest friends are injured or killed in the disco bombing.

On the other side, Fatima and Omar are clearly living in a war zone. Fatima explains that her school hasn't had a full semester in years, is harassed by Israeli soldiers, and sees a number people close to her die over the course of the play. Fatima comes to see the idea of going to America as surrender, and loses objectivity about the conflict.

Bessam is the closest thing the play has to a villain. He's the only character to address the audience, and seems to represent war itself. A number of the violent acts by either Palestinians or Israelis in the play end up being traced to his guerilla struggle. Still, he comes across as eloquent and rational, if evil. He explains, primarily to the audience, that he is involved in a war to reclaim "his land" and that we and the Israelis ignore him at our peril.

My Take on the Play

Overall, I thought the play was very effective for a 70 minute school play. It isn't trying to say whether the Palestinians or the Israelis are right, just that both sides are human. I'm as pro-Israel as the next guy, and there were a bunch of times where I wanted to stand up and say "hey, that's not fair," but I'm sure a pro-Palestinian would say the same thing.

It sounds silly, it's important to remember that our enemies are people. I know that's corny and obvious, but I mean it. There are more than a few times where I've thought "Ok, I'm done with the Palestinians. There's no reaching them, so it's war." Ultimately, though, even when war is necessary (and I think it is), we need to keep at least the possibility of peace alive. I think this play is a good step in that direction.

Audience Reaction

Most of the audience questions were hillarious. There were the usual artistic poseur questions, but the vast majority of the questions basically asked why O'Malley didn't take a side between the Palestinians and the Isrealis. Some people thought that it was unfair to the Israelis to portray Fatima as so much more serious than Sara. Others thought that it was unfair to the Palestinians to portray Fatima as so much more violent than Sara. (Fatima ultimately decides to become a suicide bomber, while Sara's newfound devotion to Isreal leads her to compose an aggressively Zionist photo essay). One guy asked if the playwright would add a scene where the Israeli Defense force killed a child; another asked why there weren't more scenes showing Israeli "crimes" against Palestinians. One questioner was concerned because the alternating news stories used to transition between scenes included the BBC, CNN and Radio Jerusalem, but no Palestinian media.

O'Malley was snowed in at La Guardia, so we didn't get to hear from him, other than a pre-prepared statement, but the other Playhouse reps handled the questions as well as they could. They basically stated that the play wasn't trying to answer whether the Palestinians or the Israelis were right, it was just trying to tell a story of two people, and to argue that peace is an alternative to war.

As I said, they also downplayed any controversy arising from the last reading, and said that the changes they made after that reading have made the play stronger. The major change they explained was replacing Fatima's boyfriend with her cousin Omar, which cut out some problems the audience had with Fatima meeting alone with her boyfriend, and also presented her choice of emmigration a little bit more accessibly. I thought that was a good change, although I wonder what else was changed.

As I've said, overall, it's a worthwhile play. I hope the Playhouse manages to get it produced.