Robben Island comes to Manhattan

A South African play performed by Palestinian actors is brought to life on a U.S. stage

Palestinian actors Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Ahmed Alrakh in The Freedom Theatre production of "The Island."
Courtesy of Freedom Theater

NEW YORK — Watching a South African play performed by Palestinian actors speaking English dotted with Afrikaans and Xhosa in thick Arabic accents is, at first sound, cacophonous.   

It happened on a New York City stage last week when Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Ahmad Alrakh, actors from The Freedom Theatre (located in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank), performed South African playwright Athol Fugard's "The Island." The two-man show about political prisoners in apartheid South Africa takes place on Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year sentence.

While the actors kept the names of Fugard's characters, John and Winston, they wore the uniforms of Israeli prisons, with Hebrew lettering on their breasts.

The blend of Palestinian and South African realities that night is part of a well-established political tradition of drawing parallels between the Israeli occupation and apartheid. While the decision to bring the show to the United States stemmed from activism and an intent to prick the American conscience, the Freedom Theatre originally chose this play because it would resonate with its Palestinian audience in Jenin.

That feeling of a kinship between the South Africans and Palestinians dates to the 1970s, when cooperation, particularly at a military level, between the governments of apartheid South Africa and Israel also began to deepen.

Anti apartheid South African icons such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu have for years championed Palestinian rights; South African institutions from labor unions to universities repeatedly express solidarity between the peoples. And there are a number of small groups in the Palestinian territories named for Mandela.

Palestinian activists have long borrowed the language of the South African experience — for example, apartheid and Bantustan — to describe their own situation. And they have emulated the tactics that activists used to bring down South Africa's apartheid system, most notably the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which calls for economic pressure on Israel.

Each family, each house, has experience with the prison. This word is not only a word in Palestine.

"The Island" was written in 1973 as a collaborative effort between Fugard and the South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who originated the roles of John and Winston. At the time, apartheid seemed immutable; Mandela had already been in prison for a decade, and the African National Congress, like the Palestine Liberation Organization, was in exile. In "The Island," two cellmates — "married" to each other by the state — toil at hard labor by day, and at night rehearse for the prison's talent show. They are preparing a scene from the ancient Greek tragedy "Antigone."

The men, who tend to each other's physical and emotional wounds, are tested when John learns that his sentence will be commuted and in three months' time he will be free, while Winston will continue to serve out a life sentence.

"Each family, each house, has experience with the prison. This word is not only a word in Palestine," says Abu Alhayjaa, who played Winston in the Freedom Theatre's production. "For someone, this means five years in the prison; for others, maybe 20. These people — we can see them, we can talk to them. They are our friends, our family."

The experience of prison is so ingrained in Palestinian society that the actors admit to having been particularly nervous when they first performed the play in Jenin. Their audience on opening night was made up of former prisoners. But not only were they lauded for the verisimilitude of their performances, they also received tips to incorporate into subsequent shows, such as bundling their shoes under their heads as makeshift pillows.

Felice Gelman, a board member of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which organized the U.S. fundraising tour in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and New York, saw several of the Jenin performances and described the reaction of the Palestinian audiences to the play as a kind of catharsis.

"People in Jenin told me seeing it on stage reminded them that the experience of being a political prisoner is meaningful, universal and not normal," said Gelman.

Although there are laws made by man, there are others that come from a higher power that guide the human journey ... I will be there in spirit.

Palestinian viewers — like South Africans before them — also connected to "Antigone," the play within the play. The Greek tragedy's title character is sentenced to death for honoring her duties to her family by secretly burying her dead brother, who is considered a traitor by the state. The play explores the tension born when manmade laws demand unjust and immoral actions.

In "The Island," Winston, who is being taught "Antigone" by John, has trouble reconciling the heroine's guilty plea when he believes she has acted justly. John explains:

Now look Winston, we're not going to argue. Between me and you, in this cell, we know she's Not Guilty. But in the play, she pleads Guilty.

It's a frustration that is all too familiar with Palestinians, says Noura Erakat, a Palestinian human rights attorney. "Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's legitimate. In a democracy, people help shape the law, but in (an) authoritarian regime or (under) apartheid or occupation, none of it is participatory, and the law is used in addition to state violence as a coercive measure." 

If there are those who resist and refute the very legitimacy of occupation laws by breaking them — as Winston does in the play by burning his passbook and earning the life sentence — the Freedom Theatre has a different tactic. Its slogan is "Generating a cultural resistance."

"Theater is my weapon," says Alrakh. It is an outlet he was able to embrace thanks to the Freedom Theatre and its cofounder Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father. A mentor to many of the actors in the group, the director and political activist was shot dead in his car two years ago in broad daylight, steps away from the theater, his infant son in his arms. (The theater's co-director is Zakariya Zubeidi, the ex-military leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin.)

As long as the occupation continues, the actors say, Palestinians will look to the South African experience for hope that things can change.

But for South African actor John Kani, the parallels remain clear. In an email to the Palestinian actors, he wrote: "Although there are laws made by man, there are others that come from a higher power that guide the human journey. Let the applause ring out tonight. I will be there in spirit."

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