BWW Review: BIRTHMARK at Montreal, Arts Interculturels — Identity, Power, and Trauma

BWW Review: BIRTHMARK at Montreal, Arts Interculturels — Identity, Power, and TraumaTeesri Duniya Theatre presents Birthmark by playwright Stephen Orlov, at MAI (Montreal, arts unterculturels). Directed by Liz Valdez and Michelle Soicher, it will run from November 3rd to November 18th. Set in Montreal, the play works to challenge mainstream depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and youth radicalization in Canada by depicting an instance of conflict, grief, and cooperation between Canada's Jewish and Palestinian communities. The play's story centers on the families of Jamila Hassan (Natalie Tannous), a Palestinian immigrant, and David Stein (Howard Rosenstein), a secular Jewish widower. At once an intimate story of loss and a dark comedy, the play attempts to highlight a pathway to building a productive and healing relationship between the Palestinian and Jewish communities of Canada.

"My father built a great worry around me like a dock

Once I left it before I was finished

And he remained with his great, empty worry.

And my mother-like a tree on the shore

Between her arms outstretched for me."

- Yehuda Amichai, excerpt from "Autobiography in the Year 1952"

Nelson (Patrick Keeler) is a painter, and a devoutly religious Jew, who wants his father David's blessing to move to the West Bank to continue his religious education at an ultra-orthodox fundamentalist settlement. David is against this idea. He reveals that their family's biological lineage is not exactly what Nelson thinks it is. Karima (Dalia Charafeddine) is an activist, poet and musician who was adopted at the age of 3 by Jamila and her late husband, after her parents (farmers) were murdered in their home by Israeli settlers. One day, without explanation, Karima disappears. Jamila has interactions with the RCMP, David, and Nelson in an attempt to piece together where her daughter has gone, and why. Nelson attempts to get a DNA test. Birthmark knows something: identity is a source of both power and trauma. We live in a world where almost everyone, through the internet, can have access to all the information they care to look for. Young people are met with an onslaught of arguments, narratives, and facts, that are as convincing as they are contradictory. What makes a person? Is it their body? Is it where they're born? Is it what they repeatedly do? Is it their family? Their culture? Their language?

"the prophets over there are sharing

the history of the holy ... ascending to heaven

and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love

and peace are holy and are coming to town."

- Mahmoud Darwish, excerpt from "in Jarusalem"

BWW Review: BIRTHMARK at Montreal, Arts Interculturels — Identity, Power, and TraumaThe strength of the performances in Birthmark are a reflection of the cast and crew's fearlessness when it comes to blending genre, being honest, listening to other perspectives, and having a sense of humour (one of the bravest and most noble things you can do). Michelle Soicher, who co-directed the play with her mentor Liz Valdez, writes in her director's notes that she was trusted to direct this show despite her short resumé. The strength of young artists and leaders like Soicher should be another in a long list of real-world evidence that the fearless and frank tendency of young people to question the status quo can help lead us towards a better world. I could praise details about the performances of the actors until my hands cramped up and I got this review rejected for being more of a love letter than a piece of journalism. I want to bring special attention to the performances of Tannous and Rosenstein as Jamila and David, who depict people who have the wisdom to see across binaries of culture, class, geography and biology to see a few essential truths about parenthood and mentorship: A person cannot be penalized for what they have never had the opportunity to learn. A child is never collateral damage or a justified sacrifice. The job of an adult isn't to protect children or young people from the world, or even to explain it to them, but to help them develop the tools to understand it for themselves.

"I would have dragged

him home back to the carpentry shop

basement locked the door

paid Judas off got a fake passport

plane ticket to the Outer Hebrides

No one would have called me Holy Mother"

- Cullene Bryant, excerpt from Embarking II (from "God is a Laughing Bedouin")

The stage is set up simply: one table, designed so two of its legs are supposed to be standing higher than the other two, with a diagonal division between them that leads it to have a step between these two plateaus. The rest of the set is a series of sheets resembling papyrus or canvas, hanging down, with faded words in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French painted on them. One of them is a painting that Nelson works on throughout the play. Sabrina Miller's stage design reminds us that art is worldmaking. The world made in Birthmark is raw, discordant, and occasionally uncomfortable. The world made in Birthmark is better than the alternative.

"I don't believe in guarded borders and I don't believe in hate

I don't believe in generals or their stinking torture states

When I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate...

If I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate"

- Bruce Cockburn, about the refugee crisis during the Guatemalan Civil War, in "If I Had a Rocket Launcher"

Birthmark is a play that attempts to display a multiplicity of viewpoints, almost all of which contradict each other, as fairly as possible. As a person who was trained as a philosopher, I appreciate that it does not shy away from having viewpoints and clear messages: we do not fight abstract concepts, we fight human beings. When we talk about what we know, we think we are scientists uncovering the truth. In fact, we are lawyers, arguing for positions we arrived at through other means. Trauma isn't just a thing that happens to your mind, it is something that lives in your body. Abuse is cyclical: we are abused and and feel powerless, and in an attempt to regain that power, too often we abuse others. This cycle can be broken. We can biologically transmit trauma. We can teach our children to be afraid in the same way we are. We can teach our children to be proud in the same way we are. Fear and pride are not weaknesses or vices, they are tools, and we can choose how we use them. Politics are family conflicts, amplified. A life worth living is a life that means something. Everyone's life means something. Listen to your parents. Listen to your children.

Home can be anywhere you are loved.

Teesri Duniya Theatre's Birthmark runs at MAI (Montreal, arts interculturels) through November 18th . Ticket prices range between $17 and $25, with special discounts for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets for November 14th will be half price, by phone and only in advance. Box office information, and a link to buy tickets online, can be found here.

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From This Author Tara McGowan-Ross