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September 30th, 2012

Passages to Palestine: Performing Peace in a High Conflict Space



My first journey to the Holy Land was not your average journey to Mecca, but instead a drama come to life, a (re)living of the African American freedom struggle on Palestinian stages, and a toiling with methodologies for peace, justice, and nonviolence in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In March of 2011, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, including the wave of Gaddafian brutal retaliation against the stirring of the Libyan people and Egyptian liberation from the Mubarak regime, I was travelling with the U.S. Consulate and Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research Institute to Israel and Palestine with a job to do-- a mission to accomplish: to transmit Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of peace and nonviolence through a multilingual, multimedia theatrical production and to disseminate these ideas in a land that desperately needed them.


Such a mission seemed laughable after I had been there on the ground long enough to witness the severity of the situation. How could the concept of non-violence prevail in a military state, where peaceful demonstrations would surely be met with the M-16s and snoods of the world’s third most powerful army, where force and might always had the upper hand? How could I resolve myself to preach a message that I was not fully sure could work myself? Though I did not have all the answers, I resolved to try, to believe, to take a leap of faith and follow the gut instinct that urged me to share the other, nonviolent option.


This was not my first time artistically staging Dr. King’s messages of hope and peace with the intent of spreading international seeds of peace. In 2007, I along with four other African American singers performed a similar theatrical production in the People’s Republic in China. The play attempted to encourage Chinese youth to open their minds and to stand against censorship, even though the residue of the 1987 Tiananmen Square violence still permeated the air. But although the politics of the Far East certainly differed from those faced in the Middle East, the message was all the same.


Oddly & sadly, our mission to spread non-violent ideology this time around in Palestine was punctuated with violence at both the beginning and end of the trip: the initial violent act being a fatal bombing at a West Jerusalem bus station and the end of the journey being met with the cold blooded murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, theatrical genius and managing director of the Freedom Theater in West Bank’s Jenin.


I was quickly learning the danger and power in the weapon of non-violence. It required me to learn to be brave and strong- quickly. After all, this public bus station, but a stone’s throw away from my hotel, was a victim of violence, as was the Freedom Theater, which I had performed in just a few days before.

 The King Singers performing

With the onset of both the bombing and the homicide, all of us - the cast and the King Singers- had reached our threshold. It was one thing to perform a protest and the subsequent murder of Malcolm X on a stage. It was another to witness a protest and subsequent murder in real life. It reached the point that it was no longer just a play, or words composed by Dr. Clayborne Carson and Director Kamel El-Basha to be performed on the stage. This play had a heart beat. It was alive. Pulsating. Beating. Bumping. The plot was thickening. It was all too real.


Yet a beautiful & dangerous thing was occurring: art & life’s lines had blurred. It was a dream of mine, actually: to see art arise from the seat of complacent slumber to wake & challenge the norm of life under colonialesque occupation. To see art become more than just art for art’s sake, but to become a useful weapon of the masses to speak power to truth.


Beautiful, but dangerous. If we were no longer in a play, if we had now reached the sphere that we were straddling art & life, that meant that I was vulnerable to the weapons and consequences of real life, too. What could keep me safe from a gunshot during my twilight Balm in Gilead solo? Or being blown up in the theater? Or arrested for doing this work by the Israeli authorities? Al-Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theater, had a history of blurring lines this way. I was told by one of the Palestinian actors that once, the Israeli police force heard of one of their political plays and waited for the end of the play before arresting the entire cast.


I was asked by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and the Musical Director of the King Singers, September Penn, to decide if I were willing to risk my life in this way to perform our last show in the West Bank. The choice was mine, and in the end, I did it because I decided that I would rather risk my life for something I believe in than grow to be an old oak who never stood for anything. And so the show went on. And have the experience to attest to the wondrous power of art and life to imitate one another, in an imaginative ebb and flow. Mashallah.

Ré Phillips is an artist and researcher. Her academic work is informed by her experiences as a cultural envoy for the US Department of State in 2007 and 2011 and she has also performed sacred Black music and theater with the National Theatre Company of China, the National Theatre of Uganda and the Palestinian National Theatre. She also recently worked in New Delhi as an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow.