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Arts & Culture Jewish-arab Play Aims to Open Eyes and Hearts on Both Sides

June 9, 2005
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“Show me your identification,” the soldier, wearing a helmet and camouflage flak jacket, barks at unsuspecting theatergoers trying to reach their seats. Faces go pale. But nervous laughter follows once it becomes clear that the soldier is not really a soldier at all, just an actor in the play they are about to see — a production about the Palestinian-Israeli conflicted called “Plonter,” a Hebrew slang word for a mess.

The idea of a checkpoint in the middle of a darkened theater may be absurd, but the absurdity of the conflict is what “Plonter” is all about. The play, which debuted at the respected Cameri Theatre last week, is the creation of its cast, a mix of Israeli Arab and Jewish actors who drew on real life scenes from the conflict, including some from their personal experiences.

During the series of scenes and vignettes that make up the production, the nine actors switch back and forth between portraying Israeli and Palestinian characters, speaking in both Hebrew and Arabic.

In one scene, Yousef Sweid, an Arab Israeli who grew up in Haifa, plays the role of a senior Israeli officer overseeing the cover-up of an army shooting of a Palestinian boy. In the next scene, he’s a Palestinian militant wearing a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh and firing an automatic rifle in the air, calling for vengeance.

In another scene, Irit Kaplan, a Jewish Israeli actress, dons the black clothes and mourning scarf of a Palestinian woman, then returns to the character of a middle-aged Israeli mother fussing over her soldier son who accidentally shot a boy in the West Bank — the same child her Palestinian character is mourning.

The interlinking story lines are part of the play’s message that all the players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are human beings; the tears of a Palestinian mother who lost her son from a soldier’s bullet, or a Jewish settler who lost her baby to a terrorist’s bullet, convey similar feelings of grief and loss.

“The settler is really the opposite of who I am,” said Mira Awad, who plays the role of a Jewish settler in several scenes but who herself is Arab.

She had trouble at first preparing for the part, she said, but then saw the humanity in her character.

“A mother losing a child is universal, it’s the same disaster wherever you go,” she said.

The cast spent seven months researching, writing and haggling over the script. They traveled to checkpoints, to Arab villages and throughout Israel, passing out questionnaires to citizens on their views of the conflict.

At writing sessions and in rehearsals there were arguments and tension, but in the end they came together around the idea of depicting life on both sides of the conflict — the pain, the absurdity, even the humor.

Director Yael Ronen said one goal of the production was to get the actors and the audience to see the conflict through the other side’s eyes.

“We are not as blind as we were in the beginning of the process,” she said.

The play opens with a replica of the concrete section of the West Bank security barrier the Israeli government has built to keep Palestinian attackers out of Israel. The actors, dressed in black, push back the pieces of the wall to reveal the world on both sides of it, and the play begins.

The opening scene shows a Jewish couple hosting their first-ever Arab Israeli dinner guests. In the comic scene, the Jewish woman reveals her ignorance by repeatedly asking her guests how difficult it was to make it through the checkpoints to reach her home.

They tell her over and over again that they are from Tyre, an Arab town inside Israel, so there were no checkpoints for them to pass.

One of the most powerful scenes is drawn from the experiences of Yoav Levy, a Jewish actor who served in a combat unit in the West Bank.

In the scene, Levy plays the role of an officer who chases down and beats a Palestinian boy who has thrown stones at him and his fellow soldiers. The officer blindfolds the boy and puts a gun to his head before returning him home to his father.

The father takes in the son and then starts beating him for throwing stones. The officer, who just moments before was beating the same boy, asks the father how he can beat his own son.

Enraged, the father forbids the officer from telling him what to do in his home, saying that the occupation ends at his doorstep.

Levy drew the scene from an incident he was part of as a soldier in Nablus.

It was at that moment in the Palestinian home, seeing the father beat the same boy whom Levy also had participated in beating, that he first saw “a red light that said ‘something here is not okay.’ “

Levy said several of his friends from the army came to see the play but disappeared after the curtain call. He found them outside, crying on the stairs.

“For me the play is like psychological therapy,” Levy said, a time to see how being on the front lines of the conflict had affected him as a person.

The strong images on stage evoked equally strong reactions.

“I came here and did not know what I would see. I was crying and laughing and was embarrassed. When it finished I felt stunned,” said Devora Averbuch, a member of the audience speaking to the actors after the show. “I want to thank you for putting on stage what we all speak about in our homes suddenly it is so real.”

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