US reporter/actor plays to tough crowd in Israel

May 20, 2011 - 8:28 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians Political Play

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 18, 2011, American journalist Lawrence Wright performs in his one-man play

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Lawrence Wright stood before an Israeli theater audience with a modest goal: To hold up a mirror to Israelis and show them why he's concerned about the future of their region.

His concerns were made clear even before he took the stage Wednesday with his one-man play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the tinderbox that is the Middle East, he discovered, even theater is explosive.

Wright had spoken with a popular Israeli-Arab actor about coupling the Israeli debut of his play, "The Human Scale," with an appearance at the actor's theater in the West Bank. But last month, the actor, Juliano Mer Khamis, was shot to death by a masked Palestinian gunman outside the theater in Jenin.

There have been no arrests, but the actor's colleagues insist an extremist killed Mer Khamis because his theater provoked controversy by putting on plays critical of Palestinian politics and for permitting the mingling of boys and girls in the theater troupe. After the slaying, performing there became too risky, Wright said.

For similar reasons, a performance in Gaza wasn't arranged. Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the territory, is skewered in the show. Wright figured the group wouldn't tolerate his play there.

He also proposed appearing at a new performing arts center in Ariel, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but found himself caught in the middle of a political disagreement between his American director and his Israeli producer.

The director, Oskar Eustis, had signed a boycott petition along with other Israeli artists, who said they would not perform there because its location in the West Bank prevented the creation of a Palestinian state and was an obstacle to peace.

Noam Semel, the director of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv and Wright's producer in Israel, opposed the boycott, but a performance in the settlement didn't happen.

The author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on al-Qaida, "The Looming Tower," and a New Yorker magazine staff writer who reports throughout the Middle East, Wright regularly crosses borders that most haven't. But now, as he sought to perform in the same places he reports from, he found himself in a political minefield.

"It's characteristic of the complexity in this region," Wright said.

That complexity is what Wright tries to distill in his play, which appeared off-Broadway at the Public Theater in New York in October and is now on a four-night run at the Cameri Theater.

Wearing the classic international journalist's uniform of a khaki shirt and slacks, Wright wraps thousands of years of religious and geopolitical history into a 90-minute monologue. Pacing in front of a book-filled desk, he weaves together Bible stories, anecdotes of real meetings with leaders of the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza, and blow-by-blow accounts of recent fighting between Israel's army and Gaza militants.

Speaking with a slight Texas drawl as gruesome photos are projected behind him, he tries to make sense of Palestinian suicide bombings and the Jewish religious cleanup crews who sweep up every scrap of flesh for burial.

"Consider the contrast of these two extreme reactions. What does it tell you about the relative value of the lives contained by those societies?" Wright asks the audience.

"But are they really so different? They mimic each other in a perverse manner, as one death echoes another in a constant pageant of revenge," he says, referring to targeted assassinations by the Israeli military and the Palestinians who clean up after them.

After the play, Wright told the Israeli audience that he hoped "holding up a mirror from a concerned and loving observer ... might help people get a different perspective on what's actually happening here."

Wright said he found the audience receptive. "For the most part they felt they had been honestly addressed," he said.

Still, it was a tough crowd. Israelis, born into a conflict in which Wright is a transient if observant visitor, were suspicious of an outsider's ability to understand their reality. His effort on opening night to widen his audience's perspective seemed to only entrench many in their views, no matter where they stood on the political spectrum.

At a panel discussion after the show, Maoz Azaryahu, an academic, told the journalist-actor, "To tell you the truth, my empathy is contained ... My ability to contain the suffering of the other side is limited."

"The symmetry bugged me," said Michelle Perris, an audience member. For her, Wright's performing for Israelis in Tel Aviv, but not for Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, proved her point that the cultural divide was too wide to bridge.

"You can't see this in Gaza. We can see this. This is the difference between us," Perris said.