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Freedom Theatre to stage political drama

‘The Island’ will kick off All That Rises, the annual TAPS performance series of art for social change

Persistent violence is not a standard precondition for the growth of an internationally acclaimed theater company. But perhaps military conflict makes urgent the need for theater as a space for ideas about political agency and human dignity to reflect and refract one another.

This is the basic belief behind the Freedom Theatre, a community arts organization based in the United Nations Jenin Refugee Camp on the Palestinian West Bank. The company comes to campus Sept. 11 to perform Athol Fugard’s “The Island” as part of All That Rises, a performance series featuring art to support social change presented by the Department of Theater Arts and Performance Studies and co-sponsored by Brown’s Creative Arts Council, the Department of Literary Arts, the Center for Latin American Studies and the Department of History.

The organization was founded “to create an outlet for children and youth in the camp … to give them a way of positively establishing a personal identity through the arts and to discover their own moral and political agency,” said Gary English, an artistic director with the group who directed the production.

Its community programming in Jenin includes an acting school, a film and media program and an improv company in addition to applied theater initiatives involving drama therapy and psychodrama, English added.

“What they represent to me is that rare and inspiring company that can match aesthetic refinement with political efficacy,” said Erik Ehn, head of playwriting and professor of theater arts and performance studies.

The group was co-founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, an actor, director and activist born to an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father. Mer Khamis drew inspiration from his mother, Arna, whose organization Care and Learning “used theater and art to address the chronic fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in Jenin Refugee Camp,” according to the Freedom Theatre’s website.

The founders of the theater also include Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant organization responsible for dozens of violent acts of resistance against Israelis in the West Bank. Zubeidi, who participated in Arna Mer Khamis’ program as a child, took a vow against violence in 2007 after an amnesty agreement with the Israeli government, multiple news outlets reported.

The organization was rattled in 2011 when unknown assailants shot and killed Juliano Mer Khamis outside the theater, English said.

“The Israeli army attacked the theater several times over the next six months, arresting most of its staff for various lengths of time,” he added. “The place is jumping now and very much back from the brink of disaster based on the murder of Juliano.”

“The Island,” a 1972 play, tells the story of two South African political prisoners who rehearse Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone” by night as a means of coping with their incarceration.

“‘Antigone’ is a vehicle within the play in which the concept of suffering and compassion are used both by Sophocles and by Athol Fugard to explain how we remain human in circumstances of continuing dehumanization,” English said.

Politically engaged art need not be dogmatic or moralistic, so long as it engages with ideas about human dignity, Ehn said. “Through the theater program, I’m interested in promoting the idea that the performing arts are about conversation more than they are about creating product,” he added.

“The work that I do is expressly not didactic. It’s deliberately dialectic,” English said. “The purpose of political drama is public discourse.”

The group’s production of “The Island” continues campus arts’ engagement with the Israel-Palestine conflict, following performances last semester by Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Israeli-Palestinian band Heartbeatl.

“I go to the Middle East-related lectures and Israel-Palestine related lectures on campus, and I see a lot of the same faces,” said Perri Gould ’14, who visited the group in Jenin as part of a program with Seeds of Peace, a summer camp devoted to conflict resolution. “When you have an event that involves the arts, you get people … who are interested in music or photography or theater. It opens up the discussion to a wider group.”

“The Island” extends the department’s exploration of incarceration narratives in the wake of Sock and Buskin’s 2012 production of “The Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which also examined performativity in the context of two male prisoners.

“It points to the fact that there are a range of approaches to art for social change, and it’s not esoteric, it’s not remote,” Ehn said. “I don’t believe this is didactic at all. I think it’s spiritual. I think it’s really about one’s relationship to meaning and making meaning.”

All That Rises will continue Sept. 24, 26 and 27 with a film, lecture and discussion from French poet, playwright and feminist theorist Helene Cicoux. Playwright and scholar Joanne Pottlitzer will present a staged reading Oct. 2 of “Between Hope and Freedom,” a developing work based on a book-in-progress Pottlitzer is writing about art making in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The Freedom Theatre’s production of “The Island” will play Sept. 11 in Studio 1 of the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at 7 p.m.


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