Seeing Double: A Middle Eastern Comedy of Errors
Seeing Double: A Middle Eastern Comedy of Errors
In the 1980′s, few Americans knew much about life in the territories Israel had occupied in 1967. Fewer still understood the PLO’s historic offer to settle for a state in less than half what had been Palestine. Yet in 1989, the San Francisco Mime Troupe produced Seeing Double, a mistaken-identity farce that argued for a two-state solution. The seeming unfitness of the genre for the topic proved the secret of the show’s success: laughter allows room for hope.
Twenty-eight years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is better understood, but no closer to resolution. Indeed, decades of US military and diplomatic support for Israel’s actions and its “facts on the ground”, have made a solution increasingly unlikely. Last summer, the writers of Seeing Double decided we would update the play, to fit today’s harsher realities and to address the U.S. role.
As a Jew from Lebanon, I have long been obsessed by the conflicts in the Middle East. Sometime in the ‘80′s, at a conference organized by the American Friends Service Committee, I saw a standup comedy performance by a Palestinian immigrant, Emily Shihadeh. “They complain that Palestinians throw rocks. What should they throw, falafel?” “They want me to recognize Israel. No problem! I went there, and recognized my parents’ house, my uncle’s house…” Inspired by Emily’s ability to make us laugh about tragedy, I got her contact information.
I had once worked with Joan Holden, then chief playwright for the SFMT. I thought that as an American Jew with long experience in collaboration, she would be able to work with Emily to create a hilarious play about Israel-Palestine. I pitched the idea, but Joan called the subject the one untouchable issue for the Left, and said it would be toxic for the Troupe.
Months later, she called back. Israeli director/playwright Sinai Peter, a friend of the SFMT, had proposed a funny idea: a young born-again American Jew joins a settlement on the West Bank and proves his utter ignorance of Israel. In Joan’s mind this triggered a plot: two young Americans: one Jewish, one Palestinian, go to the West Bank to claim the same piece of land. They are doubles, played by one actor; a plane crash-lands each on the wrong side; in the end one dies, but we don’t know which. Could I contact Emily?
Emily’s first contribution proved I’d struck gold. We had imagined two young American zealots; Emily, whose son had a band, said the Palestinian kid should be a slacker. The contrast shaped the whole play.
Emily would write the Palestinian scenes, Sinai would write the Israeli scenes. But he, Joan, and I come from secular families—we could write the Christmas-tree Jews and the kibbutzniks, but who would write the observant Jewish characters? A friend proposed Jody Hirsh, a Jewish educator. Not to be outnumbered, Emily drafted two Arab-Americans to advise; Nidal Totah, from the cast, joined them.
The two sides agreed only that the play would stick with the plot, argue for two states, and be a musical– songs and underscoring would give it emotional depth. On all other questions, we went through our own mini-peace process. The Jews called the situation “complex”; the Arabs called that word a cop-out. The Jews assumed the plane crash would be caused by a Palestinian terrorist; the Arabs were not in favor of that. Farce trades on stereotypes–but political farce must walk a fine line. The team nearly broke up over director Dan Chumley’s decision to show the two nations’ flags in the closing tableau.
Opening night, the mixed audience laughed wildly throughout, then shed tears at the end, with the two bereaved mothers, the flags, the surviving hero (which?) and the song, “This is the Year of the Possibility”. Seeing Double toured for two years, even to Israel and the West Bank. It earned enthusiastic reviews across the U.S., including in the New York Times, and won an Obie award.
Update and Revival
Last year, Sinai proposed we revive it. Joan and Bruce Barthol, our songwriter, feared the current situation could not be contained in a farce, but on condition that we sugarcoat nothing, agreed to try. I would update the American scenes, Sinai the Israeli scenes; Hannah Eady, a Palestinian actor / director / playwright, would replace Emily, who is ill; Joan would keep the story and style on track, as before.
We’ve finished the script. It’s tougher than the original on both sides, and also, especially, on the U.S. The final song is more desperate—but the farce is still funny. At a time when American theater companies and theater artists face tremendous pressure to self-censor and avoid the topic of Israel-Palestine, we are looking for a few brave producers. (Address inquiries to: email@example.com. Mosaic Theater Company will present a staged reading at the Hill Center, 800 Pennsylvania, SE, Washington DC, at 7pm on June 6, 2017. For more information, please click here: http://www.hillcenterdc.org/
Henri Picciotto is a math educator and the cryptic crossword co-constructor for The Nation. He was the first Chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Board.