SAN DIEGO—The Resilience of the Spirit Festival is currently being presented at the Compass Theatre on 6th @ Penn in Hillcrest. There are two programs running in repertory. I saw Program I. It takes place on Sundays/Tuesdays. There are three different short stories in Program I: Seven Jewish Children (A Play for Gaza) by British Playwright Caryl Churchill and directed by Fred Moramarco; Violets Bloom at Sunset by Paola Hornbuckle and directed by Kevin Six, and Welcome to Ramallah by Sonja Linden and Adah Kay and directed by Charlie Riendau.
Seven Jewish Children is a controversial (and I might add contrived to suit the playwright's needs) 10-minute play written by Churchill in 2009 just after the bombing of Gaza by Israel. (I’m wondering where the play is that she didn’t write during the steady flow of rockets into Israel, but that’s another story). To say that this one isn’t controversial would be about as big a concern as some of the bulls… and anti Semitism it elicits. In his review of the piece, Michael Billington of the Guardian writes: The play captures the mood that has overtaken Israel, where security “has become a pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.” (Where was he during the suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya?) The Times’ Dominic Maxwell praised the play for an “impassioned response to the events in Gaza (calling it) elliptical, empathetic and illuminating."
(There were others who condemned the piece as being anti- Semitic: Playwright Israel Horovitz, who wrote a play in response to Churchill entitled What Strong Fences Make, has written that while it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, and to criticize “Palestine without being anti-Arab: “Those who criticize Jews in the name of criticizing Israel, as Ms. Churchill seems to have done in her play, step over an unacceptable boundary and must be taken to task.” )
The play is set up at what appears to be a Passover Meal. There are eight characters sitting around the table, seven children and one Rabbi? There are seven scenes and with each blackout/blackout, the characters change places, which according to Churchill “different scenes concern different children and therefore the speakers change between them."
The play starts off with statements about the Holocaust and what to tell ‘her’ about where they are going, what she can take, who she will find there and what will happen to her. My guess is that ‘there’ was the camps. “Tell her about how we hid from the Nazis”. “Don’t tell her how many were killed.” Each sentence begins with “Tell her…” “Don’t tell her” in a chant or litany.
Then the words shifts to Israel and they trace that history of reclaiming the land and trying to explain why we should be there. “Tell her we’re going home.” “Tell her it’s the land God gave us."
It shifts again to the violence and the rights of the Jews. All roads lead to Gaza in this piece. “Tell her they’re Bedouins”. “Tell her they travel about." "Tell her about camels in the desert”. Tell her they live in tents”. “Don’t tell her Arabs slept in her bedroom”.
“Don’t tell her about the bulldozer.” “Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down. Tell her it’s a building site.” “Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed. "“Tell her they’re terrorists”. “Tell her they’re filth”.
According to Churchill, the play is not just a theatre event it is a political event. She will not allow theatres to accept any admission fees but instead asks for donations toward the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. Churchill is a co-patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. So why am I not surprised at the tone of the play?
I must say that for a ten minute piece, it certainly raised a lot of eyebrows. Knowing better, I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop possibly doing a little fair and balanced reporting. But see for yourself.
The third piece is also about Israel, the Jews, and the Palestinians or more precisely the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict as seen through the eyes of two sisters. Allison McDonald plays Mara, or co-author Kay who evidently lived in and worked in the West Bank with her late husband during the Israeli incursion into Ramallah. She was training English teachers in Ramallah as well as working on Human Rights issues. Both Kay and Linden wrote the piece together. It is the longest of the three pieces of Program I.
The play opens with a visit from Nat (Sherri Allen) to her sister Mara who lives in Ramallah. Nat has come to reclaim their father’s ashes, which Mara has hidden in a tea tin in order to get them into the country. When her sister Nat arrives at the apartment, a rift breaks out between the sisters Nat/Sonja Linden (Sherri Allen). Nat came all the way from Cleveland in the hopes that the two sisters would journey back to Israel and fulfill their father’s last wish of burying his ashes in the Galilee. They had all spent summers there and, we learn later on in the piece that their father had earlier fought in the Israeli Army in that particular region, now a kibbutz; which before that had belonged to the Arabs, more specifically, Maura’s newfound friends in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
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We’re not sure how long Mara has lived in Ramallah, but she has lived there long enough to be involved with a Palestinian co worker, Daoud (Saiid Zamingir) much to the chagrin of both his uncle, Salim (Haig Koshkarian) and her sister. Both Saiid and Haig are credible in convincing us of their struggles of being displaced and of having to live in a land surrounded by ‘the enemy.' What struck me was that both felt that they were surrounded by ‘the enemy.'
That said Nat is a staunch Zionist who doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings out loud about the Jew’s struggle for a Homeland, the Holocaust, past memories, their father, etc. regardless of the circumstances. Maura would like her to soften her approach and see life on the other side of the Wall, if you will.
She invites Daoud and his uncle to visit her cramped apartment before Nat returns to Israel with the ashes, so Nat can see and meet first hand real Palestinians, not just people she reads about, or not, in the press. Needless to say, the whole visit feels like it will turn into a sham as Nat and Salim rally to prove a point of what land belongs to whom and who should be on that land until a curfew is broadcast and loud speakers come over the airways announcing that everyone must remain where they are; rocket noises are heard; the roar of helicopter blades whirl overhead (Tiffany Rivas); Maura announces that she will not go back to Israel to bury her father’s ashes, and Nat becomes unglued.
One cannot help but feel a tug as each people struggle to gain insight on how to reconcile past generational actions. The sins of the fathers definitely come back to haunt the sons and daughters of future generations where the lines get blurred, but little can be accomplished if the same rhetoric is played out year after year favoring one side against the other in plays like this and the one above, which they clearly do as you will see when you come down to the theatre.
As far as production values go the players are convincing enough. My one complaint, however in Riendau’s direction is that Allen’s Nat is an over the top stereotypical spoiled and selfish, self-centered Jewish American Princess. Even I didn’t like her but I understood her. What I didn’t understand nor could I identify with about the play was why Maura was so willing to assume the worst about her father without really knowing the facts and why Daoud bought into the story as well as to give up a friendship that he truly embraced.
Once again, fair and balanced aren’t usually code words when discussing the Middle East. These plays however can open doors to discussion on many issues if they are used as guidelines.
Just a footnote: I happened to be in Israel visiting my children and grandchildren during one of the intifada’s. Yes, we all have our stories.
Sandwiched between Children and Ramallah is a brand new play Violets Bloom at Sunset by Paola Hornbuckle. Based on a true incident that happened to her uncle in Spain in 1950’s when it was against the law to be homosexual or to be found near neighborhoods or bars where homosexuals frequented.
The Law Against Vagrants and Evildoers condemning homosexuality was in full force under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Unfortunately for her uncle Andres (Jorge Rodriguez) who was a closet gay, Father Navarro (Charles Peters) the Catholic Priest who is supposed to reform any homosexuals committing acts against the state, finds Andres outside a bar in the gay area. Without any warning he hauls Andres off to prison where the alleged treatment to reform him begins. Instead he was tortured and abused by the very same closet homosexual, self-righteous priest who condemns him.
Sounds vaguely familiar to the treatment of young boys who fell prey to the very same priests whose teachings and religion railed against homosexuality from the pulpit.
Intertwined into the story are the writings and person of playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca (“Blood Wedding”) who was himself gay and whom Andres admired and respected. For him to tolerate the inhumane suffering he was experiencing under Father Navarro’s watch, Andres turned to the writings of Lorca. Lorca also suffered under the same conditions as Andres but was brutally murdered. Fortunately for her uncle, Andres escaped Spain with the help of his mother (Hornbuckle) and was able to tell Hornbuckle his story as she has told it to us.
With the fine acting of Rodriguez, Peters and Brian Burke as Lorca, this little true to life story is quite enticing and enlightening at the same time. One couldn’t help but feel disgust, anger and hypocrisy all converging at play's end. Even though Spain has relaxed it laws regarding homosexuality in the early 2000’s one can’t help but know that there are many more Andres’ out there who were killed, tortured and most likely ruined for life if for no other reason than their particular lifestyle.
The Resilience Festival continues through Aug. 5th.
I must admit time prevented my from catching Program II that includes An American Sunset by Jack Shea, Blondes By Frank Higgins, Cottonmouth Jubilee by K. Biadaszkiewicz and Stations by Michael Hemmingson.