by: Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov on April 12th, 2017 | No Comments »
Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas is the first English-language anthology worldwide in any genre of drama, prose or poetry by Jewish and Palestinian writers. Playwrights Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov address in this slightly updated anthology preface the artistic and political challenges they faced on their journey across the cultural divide to edit this groundbreaking collection of plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
How do two strangers, a Boston-born Jew in Canada and a Gaza-born Palestinian in Australia, come together to choose seven plays for such a groundbreaking anthology about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The starting point for us was trust, something we felt from the moment we read each other’s plays about the issue. What made our process work were mutual respect, honest exchange and guiding principles.
Diaspora writers outside the conflict zone offer a distinct viewpoint. Many of us live in multicultural societies that accord us both privilege and perspective, enough that we view the conflict through a more diverse prism and experience its impact differently.
We categorically reject the notion expressed by some that writing from the safety of our homes, far from the heat of battle, negates our right, our reason or our ability to address the issue in public. The Diaspora journey from page to stage is marked by the cultural footprints of our ancestors and the emotional, material and familial ties of so many to the conflict. And this is an issue for all of humanity, not merely for Jews and Palestinians.
Double Exposure challenges one of the last remaining thematic taboos to permeate much of Western theatre from North America to Oceania. We make that bold claim with humility and regret, for we wish it were not the case. Despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest and most inflammatory ongoing regional hostilities of the past seventy years, most major theatres in Canada, America, Australia and Europe have not commissioned, solicited or produced plays on the subject, many for political more than artistic reasons. This silent de facto boycott has not been a conspiracy; it has been fueled for decades by prejudice, ignorance and timidity.
This is true of scripts written by progressive playwrights of both ethnic descents who dare to criticize the Israeli occupation onstage. Few companies produce such plays, for most theatres, especially those run by mainstream Jewish cultural institutions, stamp the scripts “non-kosher,” particularly those written by Diaspora playwrights.
In Montreal, no Palestinian character has been portrayed in mainstage subscription plays of the major English or French theatres in this cosmopolitan city. In 2011, the Board of CUNY rescinded an earlier decision to grant an honorary degree to Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner because of his criticism of Israel; public outcry erupted, however, prompting trustees to grant him the degree. And in 2014, Washington DC’s Theater J fired its long-time artistic director, playwright Ari Roth, one of the few heads of an American Jewish theatre to showcase plays critical of Israel, including a stage-reading festival of scripts penned by Arab-American playwrights. Both controversies were instigated through intense lobbying by pro-Israeli zealots.
Our own plays and another in our anthology have faced censorship attacks. The Australian branch of B’nai B’rith recently instigated a media campaign against Tales of a City by the Sea, triggering a debate in the Victorian State Parliament, with some opposition MPs condemning the play’s inclusion in Victoria’s recommended high school drama curriculum. The controversial censorship campaign backfired, however, for the play remains on the curriculum list, its recent three-city tour drew solid reviews of sold-out shows, and it has received nominations and awards for best Australian drama production and publication of 2016. Shortly after 9-11 and the start of the War in Afghanistan, two anonymous bomb scares threatened cancellation of the world premiere of Sperm Count in London. The cast and crew bravely defied the threats, fortunately without incident. And the Guthrie Theatre commissioned Twenty-One Positions but then refused to premiere it for politically thematic, not artistic reasons.
The price we dramatists pay scaling hurdles to mount this conflict onstage is minuscule compared with the death and destruction that so many face in this seemingly endless war over birthright and homeland.
Beyond navigating through the political complexity of the conflict, our work as editors was artistically challenging, for both of us faced some different but equally complicated obstacles in our search for submissions. We both knew that not many playwrights of either Diaspora had tackled the conflict onstage, partly due to limited chances of production, but we were surprised to find during our research so few produced plays to solicit for publication consideration.
Despite the high number of Jewish playwrights residing in their global Diaspora, you can almost count on your fingers and toes how many of them have written such plays produced at professional theatres. Some Jewish dramatists consider the topic to be overly complex, polemical or angst-ridden to pen for stage, but too many avoid it for partisan or career reasons. While proportionally more Palestinian Diaspora playwrights address the issue directly, not all write in English. And we knew that some playwrights of both descents would balk at participating in a dual-Diaspora anthology.
Some excellent plays considered but not chosen were worthy of publication. The most common weakness of other submissions written by both Jews and Palestinians was their stereotypical depiction of “the other” characters. The plays in our anthology do not shy away from portraying “the other” side as the enemy, and a few secondary characters are limited to unidimensional roles. However, we have tried to offer you a collection of dramatic works that turn the political into the personal with universal themes delivered through authentic characters, time and place. We have sought variance in genre between drama and comedy, in aesthetic between reality and the surreal, in setting between the Diasporas and Israel/Palestine, in playwrights (with three plays written by Jews, three by Palestinians and one a collaboration by both), and in characters’ political opinions.
Since we began working on this anthology project over two years ago, we have noticed that more Diaspora playwrights are now addressing the issue and a few more theatres, especially in England, are producing such plays. Their success highlights the growing demand for compelling theatre that calls for a just peace, however distant in the horizon. Dramatizing that onstage is not merely a pipe dream of fiction. The brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014 and its ongoing siege have furthered a shift already in the making of global public opinion toward a more balanced stance on the conflict. The publication of this anthology is very much a reflection of these changing times.
We believe theatre should be a visionary art that dares to shine a light on what blinds us with fear, and the stories we pen as dramatists should expose the dark shadows of the past and the firestorms of our present to help us create a world that is more just and more peaceful for generations to come.
Playwrights Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov will be discussing the complexity of writing such plays and their editing journey in New York City on Sunday, April 23rd 4:00-6:00 pm at Book Culture bookstore, 536 W 112th St. Contributing playwright Ismail Khalidi, co-editor of Inside/Outside: Six plays from Palestine and the Diaspora, will join the panel, Q&A and scene readings, co-sponsored with its publisher, Theatre Communication Group and Playwrights Canada Press, the publisher of Double Exposure. Both anthologies are available at www.tcg.org.