The Playgoer: Another Troubled Palestine Play

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Troubled Palestine Play

I had seen the news about the brand new Artistic Director of Chicago's Next Theatre--an enterprising outfit that premiered the recent Adding Machine musical, amongst other notable projects--but thought nothing of it.  (Yes I know it's in Evanston, but still Chicagoland.)  But now Chris Jones of the Trib reveals that it was all about yet another controversial Israel/Palestine play.

Ah, but not for the reasons you're thinking.  The problem was author's rights, not human rights.

Long story short--and do read Jones for the long version--Next's new AD was intrigued by something he saw in Tel Aviv: an adaptation by an Israeli writer (Boaz Gaon) of a novel, Return to Haifa, by the long deceased Palestinian activist, Ghassan Kanafani.  That the play got on at all in Israel--back in 2008--was a kind of miracle, given what Goan had to do to get permission from Kanafani's estate and persuade Israeli audiences to come.  (Part of the controversy involves alterations/additions Goan has made to the original story to make it more "balanced.")  The essentials of the novel are as follows:

Penned in 1969, "Return to Haifi" is the story of two couples — one Israeli, one Palestinian — that ignites during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and it involves the Jewish couple raising a Palestinian baby, abandoned and forlorn in the wartime strife, as their own. In the play, the Palestinian couple returns to Haifa after the opening of the borders, following the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967. They find their child fighting in the Israeli army, as well as the Jewish couple who were once themselves refugees and who surely saved the child's life.
So the play goes on in Tel Aviv and is a big success.  So far, so good.  Nice to see theatre reaching out and building bridges amidst violent conflict.

But then there's the conflict of lawyers, estates, protective agents and careless artists!

Sutherland--rightly--senses a hot property for his new perch and begins trying to secure rights.  Problem is, Kanafani's family only authorized Goan's translation of the play--into Hebrew.  Both Goan and the Kanafanis objected to a second-degree English translation of the previous translation.  And the rights for translating the Arabic into English were not exactly being given away.  Still, not deterred, Sutherland took a gamble and proceeded to plan, rehearse, and actually perform an English version in Evanston (to decent reviews and reception) without ever securing the English language rights in writing.  An attempt to enlist a new playwright to take credit for what was claimed to be an independent work has not convinced the principal players. 

Faced with threatened lawsuits and all kinds of actions, Next dismissed Southerland and issued an apology.

So, no protests, no picketing.  Just an AD who apparently shot himself in the foot. 

Though in his defense, I can understand the pressures he felt under.  Many an AD, I'm sure, can understand (if not condone) this chain of events laid out by Jones:
Southerland insisted that American practice was to announce a title and then get the rights. "Foundations," he wrote, "need a long time to approve funding for projects." He suggested that he announce the show for the Next Theatre season "subject to final approval from the Kanafani estate." And that's what he did.

Gaon was appalled. "I cannot grant permission to any production," he wrote, "until I hear from the Kanafanis." In his e-mails, he started using all capital letters: "YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHTS."

Southerland replied that Gaon was not understanding "how it works quite often in the U.S." He told Gaon he had talked to New York producers interested in an off-Broadway production — and that he already had been given a grant to go to Israel to work on the project.


Southerland had put "Return to Haifa" on the Next Theatre season. Initially, the announcement included Gaon's name as adapter. But after Gaon's protestations, Southerland turned to another tack. He hired an Evanston writer, Margaret Lewis, to pen her own version of "Return to Haifa."

"We are not currently staging an adaptation of Mr. Kanafani's story," he told the estate in an e-mail. "(Lewis) wrote an original work inspired by the idea but also by dozens of other works. The play bares little resemblance to Mr. Kanafani's story."

That was hardly the case.
So I don't know what to conclude from all this other than you should never, ever proceed with any kind of adaptation before knowing you have the rights.  (As a writer, you shouldn't even waste time writing such a thing without being sure of that.)

But I'd like to think this also shows the potential for the material itself.  Luckily none other than Ari Roth of DC's Theatre J, who was briefly involved in the early negotiations as a possible co-producer (is there any Jewish theatre controversy that man is not involved in?) plans to import the original Cameri Theatre Production next season.  In the original Hebrew, of course.


cgeye said...

Meanwhile, Imagining Madoff has found a new home:

Dr. Cashmere said...

A good summary. But there are a couple of other important wrinkles:

matt said...

Related - my first role in Chicago was playing a young Jewish border guard in a play about a love between me and a Palestinian girl. Her brother objects, and eventually blows himself up at a crossing.

We began readings, and then suddenly, the play was postponed and then tossed - I remember being told that the "board" was concerned with work's subject, and that it was not the right time. Can't recall the theatre, but it was to be done in Bucktown.

Playgoer said...

Interesting & useful comments all around, thanks.

By the way, I feel like adding to the end of my post that while I'm glad to see the play getting done at all... will it ever be possible to stage the novel without the filter of a Jewish "adaptation"? Whether "balanced" or not, it's the Palestinian perspective we so rarely get on our stages.