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Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Shame 2.0 begins when its co-author, the actor Morad Hassan, walks onto an unadorned stage. Behind him is a photographic projection (the first of many by Dylan Uremovich) displaying the sign for Al-Midan, Israel’s state-funded Arabic-language theater. The surrounding architecture is distorted in the reflective glass of the shopping mall where the theater makes its home — perhaps this is a metaphor for the relationship between art and society.
Hassan then describes the night in 2015 when, an hour before a performance of the play A Parallel Time, protesters surrounded Al-Midan. The play was based on the life of Walid Daka, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship currently serving a life sentence for his involvement in the abduction and murder of an Israeli soldier, Moshe Tamam. Daka claims to be a pacifist and peripheral to the plot for which he was convicted, but without seeing the play, protesters contended that it celebrated terrorism, and government funding was yanked from the production.
Shame 2.0’s authors take Daka at his word but do not seek to re-adjudicate his trial; he is largely peripheral to Hassan and his Jewish-Israeli co-author Einat Weizman’s experiences as artists in a country whose political culture has lurched to the right.
Hassan did not set out to be an activist; he was simply a young man from Galilee who, instead of joining the family business making sweets, decided to study acting. At his day job as a bartender, he might deliver a favorite monologue by Israeli absurdist Hanoch Levin to his bar patrons. Later, he recounts his experience as a Palestinian-Israeli actor playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, concluding that the Palestinians “are the Jews of the Jews.”
The second half of this play is Weizman’s story. In 2006, Weizman, portrayed on stage by Colleen Delany, was photographed wearing a yellow “Free Palestine” T-shirt that her sister picked up on a lark while traveling in India. Years later, Weizman, now working as a documentary playwright, wonders if her decision to leave the house in the shirt can be attributed to naïveté, irony, or impulsivity. Comments come in harassing phone messages and hate mail—some graphically describing sexual abuse at the hands of terror cells she allegedly sympathizes with. The photo resurfaces on social media after she criticizes Israeli conduct during the 2014 Gaza Conflict and so does the harassment. Where Hassan seems to relish his stage persona, Delany’s performance appears more constrained. Perhaps because Weizman was present for the workshopping process at Mosaic, her section comes across as more of a lecture with theatrical elements than a play.
Shame 2.0 (the version presented at Mosaic significantly expands upon the original play) is structured as a diptych. The stories of its two authors run parallel, sharing an antagonist in Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, played by Lynette Rathnam (and often accompanied by a video projection of the real Regev), a retired brigadier general who served as a spokesperson for the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War.
American artists are often envious of their counterparts in countries that have a stronger tradition of public funding for the arts. Israel, due to its founders’ socialist leanings, has a long history of state and municipally funded theaters — but as Regev demonstrates, that funding comes with leverage. International attempts to boycott Israeli culture alarm her and Regev takes a more militant line than her predecessors. Weizman becomes a convenient excuse to exercise her ministry’s “freedom of funding” by cutting off theaters and festivals that present artists she regards as “disloyal.”
Shame 2.0 is a messy play with a messy development process that shows on stage—early press credited Mosaic Artistic Director Ari Roth with the adaptation and he freely admits he had to surrender that role to the original artists over the course of the workshop—but it is also fitting with the unfinished subject at its center. As with much documentary theater, its value is the potentially heated debates that occur after leaving the auditorium. Non-profit theaters in America may be free from the political interference Weizman and Hassan describe, but our cultural economy creates its own fulcra of leverage.
To Feb. 17 at 1333 H St. NE. $15–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.