SCENES FROM 71* YEARS, by Hanna Khalil, directed by Michael Malek Hajjar
Three covered young women are picnicking. They sit on a blanket with baskets of food and a thermos of tea in front of them. While eating, pouring tea, laughing and gossiping, a couple of armed guards approach, brandishing weapons. They interrogate the women and command them to open the bags and baskets. Intimidated, the women comply while describing their contents. Satisfied, the guards depart. The mood destroyed, the women pack up and leave. This is just one of several domestic, bucolic scenes disrupted by Israeli guards in Hannah Khalil’s play,”Scenes from 71* Years.” One wonders why are Palestinian narratives politicized here in the US? Why are so many productions cancelled? And what is so threatening about their music, stories, and language: their lives? Golden Thread founding Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian in her program notes replies: ” ‘Scenes from 71* Years’ simply says ‘We are here, still, despite everything.’ to me, this is storytelling at its best.”
“Scenes From 71* Years” concerns the daily lives of everyday Palestinians’s experiences living under Israel occupation. Award-winning author, Khalil, is of Irish-Palestinian heritage; she calls her play an “epic snapshot of Palestinian life under occupation, spanning the years from 1948 to the present day.” As stated in the Program Notes, “The Arabic and English names on the set are a handful of the 418 Palestinian villages that were depopulated, vacated or destroyed during the 1948 war that established the state of Israel.” It helps to know or at least be acquainted with the significant events that occurred over those years. During the play, the year that a particular action takes place is projected on a screen behind the actors, complete with an archival black and white photograph or video of the event in the background, such as the bulldozing of Palestinian homes in which activist Rachel Corey was killed. However, it can be confusing as this is not shown consecutively but jumps around from the time of the event to the present day. Still, one is able to get the gist of what’s happening.
Director Hajjar, in honoring Khalil’s script, worked to transform the audience’s perception of Palestinians; Khalil has stated in her Playwright’s Statement that she is sick of seeing Arabs on stage. “Don’t get me wrong,” she adds, “I love Arabs -hell my dad’s Palestinian, but why are we always portrayed in the narrowest way? Crying mothers, stone-throwing resisters, dead martyrs.” Seeing an American-Arab on stage who used a resounding tag line which exposed stereotypes and clichés got her writing. She went on to state,”My heart ached for the fantastic Arab actors I knew who had to don a suicide vest at every audition.” Other writers and filmmakers inspired her to write a play depicting in her words “normal” Arab characters, and in “Scenes”, she has, after years of rewrites and updates to current times.
The actors do excellent work especially when making the transition from an occupier to the occupied, from one character to another: for instance from an Israeli guard to a Palestinian family man. There are a few scenes shown over time of Palestinians waiting in long lines at Israeli check points not knowing when they will be allowed through. It varies from one day to the next: 5 minutes, to “We’re closed. Come back tomorrow,” after having waited several hours already, carrying perishables or trying to make it to an important appointment, or visit a friend or family member. There is a scene where a Palestinian invites an Israeli soldier guarding his home in for tea on a sweltering day. An audience member in a talk-back after the play objected, believing that a thing like that could never happen. The actor Nida Khalil, a Palestinian America, replied that the scene is valid, that between individuals, especially people one sees almost every day, it is not an uncommon occurrence.
Hajjar and Khalil have assembled an outstanding ensemble cast who play multiple rolés, from the youngest member, eleven year-old Kal’el E. Lopez as a Palestinian schoolchild to the oldest, 60 + year-old, Afiif Houssain, depicting a man who had witnessed his ancestral home being invaded and looted by callous Israeli soldiers. He, as the elder, delivers a heart-rending monologue at play’s end.
I encourage you to see this play. Open your mind and heart. Golden Thread Productions has specialized in producing plays from the Middle East for 20 years. American Theater Magazine has written “Golden Thread is the fountainhead of Middle Eastern-American Theatre and the generative force behind this major and growing new voice in American Theatre.”
“Scenes” plays through Sunday, May 5 at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94107. Muni, # 22 Fillmore, stops a block away. Some street parking. go to: www.goldenthread.org for tickets and more information.