Jenin Freedom Theatre’s Gift to the World
There’s always the risk of disappointment when you attend the performance of a theater group that has achieved near-legendary status, as has the Jenin Freedom Theatre. The JFT is based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin, and was on tour the past weeks in the US. I caught their performance in New York City, at the New York Theatre Workshop in a production of Athol Fugard’s “The Island” whose setting is a prison on Robben Island.
The legend of JFT is huge, casting a long shadow, but the NYC performance was neither disappointing nor an occasion for cheering for a good cause or mourning the murder of its visionary founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis. As sometimes happens in such situations, we end up sacrificing the art for the cause, but not so in this case.
The play was in performed in English (a last-minute switch by the troupe) by actors (Faisal Abu Alhayjaa in the role of Winston and Ahmed Alrakh in the role of John) for whom English was palpably a second language. But this fact added not only to the internal tension of the performance but made the whole thing a bit strange, awkward even, made the struggle of the two prisoners even more acute, more visceral.
But beyond this strange, deeply affecting quality of an estranged, tension-filled English, what was riveting about this production was the physicality of the performance. A prison is supposed to act as a sedative for the body, but in Fugard’s play and the JFT’s production, the play breaks the boundaries of words, goes beyond them almost. The actors jump, go round in circles, fly into the air, fall to the ground, lie on their makeshift mattresses, all with a dizzying speed, energy, and skill. The underside of all this energy is, of course, the possibility of its dissipation: the prisoners are planning a performance of Antigone, a kind of buttress, if you will, of art against chaos, formed energy against formlessness, and at the center of this whirl is the question of justice–whose justice? Antigone’s or her brother’s?
For sure, there were some rough edges to the production–most notably in the sound design which, to our ears, was a bit pacifying, too melodious. But we left the theater neither disappointed nor cheering the political cause. We had received the gift of great theater from Jenin, offered by superb actors–present, engaged, skilled, all of which we were witness to in the performance itself but also in the Q and A that followed. What an afternoon!