Palestinian actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis dreamed of seeing a cultural revolution in Palestine. After his murder in April, his students say they are fighting to keep his dream alive.
Six members of Palestine’s Freedom Theatre troupe, the only theatre organization currently operating in the West Bank, spoke to a crowd of about 75 at the Yale Repertory Theater on Wednesday. The actors said that they are determined to continue Mer-Khamis’ effort to bring arts to the Palestinian people, despite the backlash their work often draws due to the Palestine’s rigid social structure.
“We do human theater,” Freedom Theatre actor Iyad Horani said. “The Freedom Theatre [is] freedom for black and white, old and young, men and woman, boys and girls. It’s a freedom for everyone.”
Josh Pearlstein, a New York-based director and fundraiser for the troupe, said the Freedom Theatre got its start when Mer-Khamis, already an established Palestinian actor, went to a West Bank refugee camp with his mother in 1993. The two taught the children at the camp cultural and artistic crafts from finger painting to stage performance, an experience that Perlstein said showed Mer-Khamis the importance of bringing free expression to an artistically stifled culture.
After winning the Right Livelihood Award — an “alternative Nobel Peace Prize” — Mer-Khamis’ mother used her prize money to fund the first theater ever built in the West Bank, in the refugee camp. The camp, called Jenin, is home to hundreds of families but lacks cultural development due to constant supervision and frequent raids by the Israeli government, Pearlstein said.
After his mother’s death, Mer-Khamis worked with social activist Zacharia Zebedi and Swedish-Israeli director Jonathan Stanczyk to create and fund the Freedom Theatre troupe, Pearlstein said.
The visiting Freedom Theatre actors — all six of whom grew up in Jenin — said that Israeli authorities and Palestinian conservatives often react harshly to their work. Actor Mo’men Swetat said that his home is often stormed without warning by Israeli forces, while his troupe-mate Mustafa Statti said that he feels that he and his fellow performers are treated as less than human. This animosity, he said, comes from the authorities and from everyone in the camp but their most vocal proponents.
To these supporters, the group’s activities provide a window into an artistic world they would not otherwise have experienced, said actress Batoul Taceb, the first woman ever to perform onstage in the West Bank. Her fellow actress Sophia Harb said that community members are welcome to participate in performances.
“It is exciting in our community,” Taceb said. “Nobody had seen theater. Nobody had seen lights, men and women dancing. It was something with colors.”
Despite the setback of Mer-Khamis’ death, troupe members said they are determined to push forward. Pearlstein said actors were interrogated by authorities without any clear motive. The Freedom Theatre’s headquarters was ransacked by Israeli authorities under the guise of crime scene investigation for Mer-Khamis’ shooting outside the theater. The actors said that without Mer-Khamis’s guidance and fundraising abilities they do not know how to rebuild or how to proceed. Nevertheless, troupe members said that they believe Mer-Khamis’s spirit lives on in them, and they will fight to maintain his legacy.
Three students interviewed at the event said that they were struck by the Freedom Theatre’s determination.
“It was very moving.” Sam Lasman ’12 said. “It’s interesting to hear about [Mer-Khamis’] loss being as catastrophic as it was.”
The Freedom Theatre will be performing Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at Columbia University on Oct. 18.