Still the Last Taboo: Palestinian Stories in American Theatre

“We may not agree with all the voices we hear on our stages, but we must welcome them, especially those kept on the periphery, ‘deliberately silenced [and] preferably unheard,’ the very voices of those who often have the most to teach us.” 

Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi
The Last Taboo? The ‘Palestine Exception’ in American Theatre
The Dramatist January/February 2018

Samer Al-Saber

How must we react when SOS messages from Palestine call on us to do something… anything…?

In the past few months, we have seen unprecedented bombardment and destruction in Gaza. In 2018, we heard of the bombardment and destruction of Gaza’s Mishal Theater. We have seen and read Ashtar Theatre’s The Gaza Monologues since their inception in 2010. Contemporary Palestinian theatre has sent calls for attention to the plight of the Palestinians since the 1970s, asking for opportunities to tell its stories, but was confronted with refusal and indifference on ideological grounds. New York’s Public Theater has yet to make up for Joseph Papp’s censorship of El-Hakawati’s Story of Kufur Shamma (1989) and its failure to carry through its presentation of the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege (2017). Will the Public ever produce a Palestinian play by a Palestinian playwright? What must we do when past advocacy fails to prevent the atrocities of the present?

As theatre makers, we sometimes persist inside tornadoes of indecision in an environment that is consistently unreceptive and often anti-theatrical. In times of normalcy, we take refuge in the promise of the theatre as a site for advocacy, freedom of speech, immediate connection, and storytelling beyond the news bite. However, not all crises are the same, and our profession demands that we weigh crises according to their urgency and material conditions. Yet, in dark times of absolute emergency, paralysis may easily overcome the best of us. What is our role when Jenin’s Freedom Theatre is under attack, its employees arrested, and its city invaded? At the time of this writing, the Freedom Theatre’s producer, Mustapha Sheta, remains in prison awaiting an uncertain fate.

Palestine has historically been victim to material atrocities that American theatre makers have been aware of. Lip service has often been the answer. Occasionally, minor resources have been put forth in the form of the lowest rung of the ladder: workshops, speeches, roundtables, panels, and public readings. Palestine continues to occupy the thoughts, discussions, and imaginations of playwrights, directors, performers, and artistic directors, all believing that they know and understand it, but we have yet to see honest material commitment in the work. Until theatre artists and administrators who utter and think the words Gaza, Palestine, and Palestinian equally consider that their participation in common discourse without earnest action contributes to absenting Palestine, the American theatre will continue to deepen Palestinian suffering.

To advocate for Palestine in the theatre is to employ and showcase Palestinians without apology. Playwrights must write Palestinian characters with the assistance of Palestinian dramaturgs, directors, and actors. Directors must pitch the works of Palestinian playwrights. Actors should cede space for Palestinian performers. Most importantly, it is the absolute responsibility of artistic directors and administrators to open their spaces for Palestinians to tell their stories to the subscribers of American theatre. Until the communities of the American theatre identify Palestine as a programming priority, they will remain willing participants in the deepening suffering of people who have long deserved to tell their narratives without compromise.

To advocate for Palestine is a positive act.  

To collaborate with Palestinian theatres is a delight. 

Engaging with Palestinian life is urgent.

Demanding Palestine on our stages is not a burden but a principled, ethical, and joyous imperative.

American theatre needs Palestine to regain its moral promise.

Samer Al-Saber
Samer Al-Saber

is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University and a widely published academic. Directing credits include Betty Shamieh’s As Soon As Impossible, Hasan Abdelrazzak’s The Prophet, Arthur Milner’s Facts, and a Palestinian adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His play Declonizing Sarah was produced at Chicago’s Uprising Theater. He is currently directing Returning To Haifa for Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco.