BWW Review: Theater by Palestinians: TAHA at the Kennedy Center
As part of the the Kennedy Center's springtime spotlight on international directors, the first of three works by Palestinian playwrights opened at its Terrace Theatre Wednesday.
It was the world premiere of the English version of "Taha," by Amer Hlehel, who made a one-man work for himself out of the writing and life of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
It had been translated by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who directed the piece, and was developed with help of The Sundance Institute. Zubi is a busy man, currently commissioned to write new plays for the Union of Theatres of Europe and the Royal National Theatre in London. The result of the two men's work here was as disarmingly simple, direct and humane as many of Taha's poems.
Born in a village in Galilee called Saffuriya in 1931, the the poet was forced to flee with his family to Lebanon in the 1948 displacement still known as "the catastrophe" to Palestinians. When the family was finally allowed return home, their village was gone and they moved to Nazareth, where he made a living selling souvenirs by day, writing poetry and prose at night, becoming a serious writer later in life.
He didn't receive much international acclaim until Israeli-American writer Adina Hoffman wrote his biography in 2009, borrowing a line from his poetry for its title: "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness," on which the play was also based. Haha died in 2011 at 80.
To portray him in his methodically paced one-hour play, the soft-spoken Hlehel dressed in sweater vest, padded around the square stage as rootless as the people he represented, telling the story of uprooting and refugee struggles that sound as compelling and immediate today as they were nearly 70 years ago.
Nods of affirmation from the opening night audience followed his childhood stories of Taha - the large close families, the hardships, the literal step up when one got his first shoes to wear to school. Yet there were things a youngster in Palestine couldn't understand - such as the warnings that their land would be stolen. "Right under our feet like a rug?" the future poet wondered.
The success of Taha's poems - and the resulting play on his life - came from the fact that he harbored little bitterness at his plight, and largely steers away from traditional political posturing, allowing his story to speak to a more universal condition.
While much of the work came in translating the play to English, Taha's own poems, when they come up in the narrative, are spoken in their original tongue, turned to English in supertitles (in Peter Cole's translations) behind the actor. That's the case until the final poem, spoken in English, but translated back to written Arabic on the screen behind. As much as "Taha" is about a poet, it is also about translation.
It's a stark production (designed by Ashram Hanna) - a briefcase of poems is about the only prop on hand, a bench the only set dressing. Muaz Jubeh's lights define the confining dimensions of a refugee camp tent. Habib Shehadeh Hanna's music sets the right tone, sparingly, with touches of Eastern music.
It's a lean production, able to be easily transplanted, but while always thinking of home, like the play itself.
Of the two other works in the series by Palestinian playwrights this month at the Kennedy Center, "Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali?" will be performed March 23-24 and "Creative Tensions: HOME" on March 25.
"TAHA was presented by the Kennedy Center March 15 and 16. There are planned performances this summer in Europe in Luxembourg, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.