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Fifty years have passed since the 1967 Six-Day War, which marked the beginning of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The continuous feuding between Israelis and Palestinians has resulted in thousands of lives lost, given rise to Hamas, and failed to move Israelis and Palestinians toward a sustainable, peaceful solution. It’s a complicated war of borders, a literal bloody mess.
Despite decades of wars—or perhaps because of them—powerful pieces of art have come out of the region. For 17 years, the Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival, first presented by Theater J and now by Mosaic Theater Company of D.C., brought many significant plays to local audiences. This year’s Capital Fringe Festival includes another particularly emotional part of the canon, Pamela Nice’s It’s What We Do: A Play About the Occupation.
The play emerged from a presentation by Breaking The Silence, an organization that collects and publishes testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have served in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 2000. Organizers curate text and mount public events to share the stories of Israeli soldiers with the goal of exposing audiences to the brutal and untenable realities of life in the occupied territories. Nice attended one such event at Busboys and Poets in 2013, which inspired her to write It’s What We Do.
“I was so taken by the courage of the soldiers from Breaking the Silence, most of whom were conscripted, talking about what they did and talking about what the occupation means,” Nice says. “They are not the policymakers. They are the boots-on-the-ground people.”
Her play centers around three Israel Defense Forces soldiers. As they are interviewed about the acts of violence and subjugation they committed against Palestinians, the soldiers express regret and, at times, agonizing guilt about enforcing an occupation that they morally oppose. Intermittent scenes dramatize the horror and supply a close-up view of the ramifications of the occupation. The play premiered at Capital Fringe in 2015, winning the Audience Award for Best Drama.
This year’s iteration, which Nice brought back to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the occupation, is largely unchanged, with the exception of several new cast members and some additional text from the Palestinian point of view. Nice gathered direct quotes from Palestinians when she visited the region in 2016 on an interfaith peace-building trip. She called the situation at checkpoints Kafkaesque—there was no way to know why and how, and for how long, Palestinians are detained.
Nice also spoke to many Israelis. “We went to Sderot, the city that receives most of the Hamas rockets from Gaza,” she says. “We talked to a woman there who started an NGO to build relationships with Gazans. She refused to accept that Palestinians had to be her enemy.”
The playwright has a history of using art to increase understanding between Americans and Arabs. Her 2003 documentary Letters from Cairo features interviews with Egyptian artists and intellectuals. She has lived in Morocco, where she taught theater of the oppressed techniques, which encourage artists to use theater to promote social change, to students who complained of sexual harassment by the police. During a stint in Egypt she taught a study-abroad course for Americans who wanted to learn about Egyptian life through the eyes of Egyptian artists. She has taught courses in theater, Arab film, and Arab literature at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and been a film critic for Al Jadid, a review of Arab arts and literature. She is currently working on a film script about a Muslim scientist in the U.S. who is targeted when a vial of his newly developed bioterrorism agent goes missing.
“It’s based on a true story of a non-Muslim scientist whose life was ruined when his vial disappeared,” Nice says. “You can only imagine what would have happened if the scientist was Muslim.”
It’s meaningful, says Nice, to bring It’s What We Do back to Fringe this year, given the current political climate. “Some of the language coming out of the highest office in the land is encouraging the dehumanization of Muslims,” Nice says. “The U.S. gives over $3.2 billion in military aid each year to Israel, much of it to fund the occupation, and that amount will rise.”
One thing that remains constant from the 2015 production is the presence of Jamal Najjab. A Palestinian-American who made his acting debut in the original production, Najjab is returning to the stage in a play that is close to his heart.
After working as a reporter and photographer in the West Bank for three years, Najjab was beaten and jailed, after which he says he didn’t take photographs for many years. Since coming to the D.C. area, he’s become a fixture in the art scene’s conversation about the West Bank crisis. Ari Roth, founding artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company, has worked with Najjab on Mosaic’s Peace Café conversation for several years. In a show of artistic camaraderie, Nice and Roth cross-market and support each other artistically, and both artists have drawn from Breaking the Silence to develop and distribute anti-occupation, pro-peace art.
“We couldn’t believe any more in Breaking the Silence, and Nice’s play really respects the source material,” Roth says. “The material measures the cost of occupation. What Israeli soldiers are being asked to do is difficult and terrible. The price that is paid in order to maintain a security apparatus has a lasting and corrosive impact on the Israeli body politic, on the Israeli character and soul.”
Fringe audiences will go into the show knowing there is no peaceful solution yet to the Israel-Palestine problem, but a harmonious union of D.C. artists gives voice to the injustices in the region and calls for peace. Roth finds the local collaboration compelling. “Making art out of conflict and making something that is a beautiful human expression of pain and difficulty is important,” Roth says. “It breeds understanding and a whole different take on political strife.
July 13, 15, 19, 21, and 23. Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II. 1333 H St. NE. $17. capitalfringe.org.