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The Good in Messy Theatre

“It felt very one-sided,” one audience member said. “It’s one side of the story. Good theatre should at least create a sense of doubt about the message.” “So basically, he’s saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” a friend later said to me, summing up that audience member’s gripe.

I facilitated these conversations, fielding opinions expressed during the talkback sessions of the recent Intersections Play Reading Series. Three plays — Abraham’s Daughters, Bongani, and The Cost — and a screenplay, Nines, were presented as staged readings. The series was meant to highlight, support, and create a platform for thought-provoking dialogue around emerging literary performance works that reflect modern social issues. I would say that it did that and much more. I certainly expected a good range of strong opinions from audiences full of artists, theatre-lovers and social justice advocates. Passionate people. We all have opinions, but passionate people have opinions.

One of the most profound thoughts this series left me with is that people have very important expectations of theatre, beyond providing a temporary escape from the real world. This is worth acknowledging, because lots of folks have stories to tell. After 2016, lots of folks really, really have stories to tell. I don’t think people should be told how to tell their stories, however I know that theatre can significantly impact audiences, often shaping the values of individuals. That’s great power, and with great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes.

The play that the previously-referenced audience member had a strong reaction to — Abraham’s Daughters — explores issues of identity (Jewish-American, Muslim-Palestinian, lesbian), oppression, occupation and feminism, and is inspired by firsthand accounts of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus who lived through the first Intifada in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s the story of a fictional character, Abraham Abramowitz, a Jew from Queens, who moves to Tel Aviv to bury his wife and live out his final days in the hopes of achieving his destiny as the Father of Nations. 

When he discovers his Palestinian Muslim family, he struggles to get his American descendants to accept them as kin. In the midst of this story, we learn about certain atrocities experienced by Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers. This is part of the material based on true accounts, and this is where things get uncomfortable. It speaks to a decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, but through the lens of a Palestinian family. The audience member felt that it made Israeli soldiers seem evil. Some people agreed. Others agreed with the playwright’s intention to simply tell a story from a relatively marginalized perspective, reporting things that actually happened.

So who’s right?  How should Emma Goldman-Sherman, the playwright, have told the story?

When the audience member said that theatre should create a sense of doubt, he may have been speaking to the importance of tension. If the audience feels tension then they’re engaged, on the edge of their seat, wanting to know “Will they or won’t they…,” “Who’s the culprit?,” “How will it end?”, “What really happened?”… etc.  I agree that this makes for good theatre. I also believe tension can be created without diluting a straightforward message, particularly if the message is true. A play that exposes an experience of oppression, especially from the point of view of the oppressed, will likely be controversial. I think this is okay, because one thing that theatre definitely IS is a conversation with the audience. This could be a messy conversation, but if we listen closely — not just to the story, but also to our fellow man — then the message won’t feel like “Them vs Us,” but rather just about “Us.”  Period. All lives matter. If we are to truly be a connected world, one person’s story should be every person’s story. In order to get to this place we must make space for people to tell their story.

Congrats to the playwrights of the Fall Series.  And a huge thank you to the audience and all of their invaluable thoughts.