HARRISONBURG, Va. — For Lindsay Acker and Austin J. Sachs, students at Eastern Mennonite University who spent 3½ months last year in the Middle East, the one-man play that came to their campus compelled them to grapple with all sorts of wrenching memories.
“I was in tears when the show ended, and my stomach was in knots the rest of the night,” reported Acker, a sophomore from Buffalo. “A lot that I had chosen to set aside — because dealing with it daily is emotionally, physically and spiritually challenging — just came back to the surface,” explained Sachs, a junior from Harrisburg, Pa.
And for Gassan Abbas, the Palestinian actor from Israel who has been performing “I Shall Not Hate” in one college town after another, the experience has broadened his understanding of the compassion in this country — as well as a sense of its myopia about the world. “It’s important for me to emphasize that the American people are very naive,” the plain-spoken performer said in Hebrew, in an interview conducted with the help of an Israeli interpreter, Sivan Atzmon. About his region of the world, he added: “They know nothing.”
Well, surely the audiences who have been coming to see “I Shall Not Hate” in places such as Norman, Okla., Grinnell, Iowa, and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley know a little more, courtesy of the stories that Washington’s Mosaic Theater Company has been bringing to their doorsteps. Led by Artistic Director Ari Roth, a seven-person team embarked on the first national tour the three-year-old theater company, based at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, has ever undertaken, with “I Shall Not Hate” and another solo play about Israelis and Palestinians, David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa.”
The mission the company is on, traveling with cast and crew across the country with a modest set that Roth bought for $600 from the Israeli theater that first presented “I Shall Not Hate,” is broadening a conversation that otherwise was unlikely to unfold so rigorously in these locales. “You’re going to the middle of a cornfield in Iowa and bringing the concerns of Gaza, and a part of the world that touches people, wholeheartedly,” Roth said as he drove to Eastern Mennonite, a school of 2,000 students, about two hours from Washington.
Revealing in dramatic fashion some of the problems existing half a world away certainly can have a profound effect on audiences, but finding venues willing to give them a hearing is no easy assignment. Roth, for years, has been seeking to connect American theatergoers with drama from Israel and its Arab neighbors. At Theater J, the Washington company he headed for 18 years until his ouster in December 2014 by his superiors at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, he created a festival, Voices From a Changing Middle East, that featured work, often of a political nature, from the region. He’s continued some of that programming at Mosaic, which he founded after his firing, and out of which the idea of the tour emerged.
Affirmative responses came from organizations at the University of Oklahoma, Grinnell College, Eastern Mennonite and the University of Chicago — often the result of prior networking or through local contacts. “Putting Palestine on American stages,” Roth noted, “is still a touchy proposition.”
“I Shall Not Hate,” whose U.S. premiere Mosaic produced in 2016 during its inaugural season, is the first-person account by Izzeldin Abuelaish and Shay Pitovsky, based on Abuelaish’s own book and the horrific tragedy that befell his family during the 2008-2009 conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s governing organization. Abuelaish (pronounced A-boo-Lie-ish) is a fertility doctor, now living in Canada, who studied in Cairo and at Harvard, worked in an Israeli hospital and was supporting his wife and children in Gaza when horror, in the form of an Israeli tank missile, struck. Three of his daughters were killed in the attack. And yet, as explained by the character Abbas embodies in the 75-minute play, performed in Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles, Abuelaish’s having known and worked with Israelis wouldn’t allow him to express hatred for them.
The piece and “Via Dolorosa,” a political travelogue detailing Hare’s observations about the state of the Middle East, have played to good and sometimes highly vocal crowds during the tour’s brief stays; post-show discussions with the touring team and local scholars and other experts are a regular feature. Eastern Mennonite’s special focus on reconciliation, through its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, served as the catalyst for Mosaic’s Harrisonburg stop. The center’s executive director, Daryl Byler, knew Abuelaish and had invited him to the campus a few years ago; when Mosaic put on “I Shall Not Hate” in Washington, Byler brought an Eastern Mennonite group to see it.
Acker and Sachs were among 20 students who went to the Middle East last year as part of the university’s summer peace-building institute, led by its director, William Goldberg. Having absorbed a range of aspects of life in Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan and Egypt, they were well-prepared for a play dissecting the intensity of suffering that is endemic to the region. (The Saturday matinee audience in the college’s Studio Theater was made up of other EMU students, as well as residents from the area, including some women wearing scarves and hijabs).
Sitting in a university cafeteria before that performance, Abbas sounded angry and fatalistic about the prospects for any sort of brokered peace between Palestinians and Israelis — despite the play’s essential humanitarianism. “You know, I used to be such a supreme optimist. But it’s been a while, a couple of years,” he said, adding that hopelessness has worn him down. “Today I’m not an optimist. I’m not an optimist at all.”
Sachs and Acker were seated with him in the dining hall, listening to Abbas’s words. Later in the day, after seeing the play, the students had some sobering thoughts of their own. The play reminded Sachs, for instance, of what he saw last year: how little contact young Palestinians and Israelis have and how that lack of positive interaction meant that “they never get to see the other as just another kid, like them. So people like Abuelaish, who become that point of contact between the two sides, make a huge difference in putting a face to the other.”
A play, then, despite the long odds, as an instrument of peace-building. To Acker, even the mere act of bearing witness to someone else’s pain, can have meaning.
As she put it: “There’s healing in really hearing, in really listening to the stories.”