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Playmakers' new season opens...

...with a Palestinian take on life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank

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When the Bulbul Stopped Singing
Playmakers Repertory Co.
Kenan Theatre, UNC-CH
Sept. 12-16

Its 2004 world premiere at Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival won accolades: four- and five-star reviews and best-of-festival designations from the critical press, topped by the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award—a superlative that would honor The Exonerated the following year.

In New York, a Theatermania.com review openly mocked a springtime 2005 run of the same work as "a soap opera for credulous Westerners," while the New York Times dismissed it as "political rhetoric masquerading as theater."

Given the broad spectrum of opinion, it's hard to believe that the critics were viewing the same actor in the same production. And if responses to When the Bulbul Stopped Singing have been this divisive up to now, it's hard to imagine what the local responses to it will be when the controversial work opens the Playmakers Repertory Company's new season and its new second stage series of productions, dubbed PRC2, this weekend in Kenan Theater in the Department of Dramatic Arts building on the UNC campus.

It's the second consecutive year where Playmakers Rep has endeavored to shake up local programming and community expectations with its season opener—again by the half-measure of a limited one-weekend engagement, versus the month-long runs the company's mainstage shows have in Paul Green Theater, just down the lobby from the Kenan. Last fall, actor John Feltch and director Julie Fishell briefly reprised the production of I Am My Own Wife that Playmakers presented earlier in the year during the Stoneleaf statewide theater festival in Asheville. The Tony award-winning script entered—and exited—Kenan's side stage before Steve Martin's low-grade sex farce The Underpants languished last October on the company mainstage (see "Dingy drawers," Oct. 18, 2006).

Ellen Hemphill, director of When the Bulbul Stopped Singing - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

But the work that Joseph Haj has chosen to start off, and star in, during his first season at the helm as Playmakers Rep's artistic director is likely to kick up a bit more dust than last year's opening volley. When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, to be directed in Chapel Hill by Ellen Hemphill, is a stage adaptation of published diaries kept during the April 2002 Israeli Army occupation of Ramallah. The diarist: human rights advocate Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinian author and attorney whose internationally recognized organization, Al-Haq, has sought to protect and promote the rule of law in the occupied territories since 1979.

By the time this account begins, however, Shehadeh has been out of the practice for nine years, in an open retreat from the seemingly endless struggle of the early 1990s, to make his mark on his own, as an author. His refuge is a house in Ramallah, in which he and his wife, Penny, lived out what he terms a "self exile, on borrowed time."

By the time Shehadeh writes, "And then, one day, our respite came to an end when I woke up to the sound of tanks," his estrangement from legal structures and Palestinian and Israeli governments have made him virtually useless to his brother, Samer, when his house is occupied by Israeli troops. From that point, David Greig's stage adaptation depicts the author as a thoughtful man, whose thoughts in the end may not provide adequate shelter from snipers, ordnance and random military violence for himself and his loved ones. Though he comes off a bit more than an ordinary man in extraordinary times in the script, Shehadeh effectively exhibits a common touch. His simple testimony conveys the realities of everyday people trying to live and continue a civilized life and discourse in a city under siege.

"The guy just wants to do his laundry," Haj says at one point in a pre-rehearsal interview last week in Chapel Hill. "He just wants to move through his day. In the piece, Raja speaks loudly for an enormous cross-section of the Palestinian world—voices we don't typically hear, I think. We hear voices that I think are more toward the edges.

"I don't think there are a lot of good plays that explore the crisis of the Palestinian/Israeli divide," Haj continues. "I Am Rachel Corrie [about the Washington state peace activist killed in Gaza in March 2003] may be the exception that proves the rule. What I like about this one is that it is about, needless to say, a Palestinian point of view—but, to my mind, it's a moderate, human and humane voice. I was very taken by how not sensational it was.

"It's not, you know, 'I'm a Palestinian; I hate Israelis, I wish they'd all go away.' It feels to me quite a bit denser and more complicated than that."

Unfortunately, Haj has invited further complications to this production—ones that do not advantage the cause of open conversation on the controversial topics it takes on. The first three dates of the production fall during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which may complicate efforts to reach Jewish audiences. Haj responded to the programming gaffe last week with an open letter of apology to the community, posted on the Playmakers Rep Web site. In it, he states that, though his wife is an observant Jew, no one noticed the conflict in programming when Bulbul's performance dates were scheduled without consulting a Jewish calendar.

"It was a terrible mistake, one that I'm deeply embarrassed by," Haj said last week, noting that some opposition to the production had been lodged before the date conflicts were made public.

"But some part of our work is to take on and discuss challenging issues. This isn't the last one of the season: We've got Witness to an Execution at the end of the year and Topdog/ Underdog in the middle of the season—stuff that's going to be challenging for our audiences.

"I'm interested in a theater, not to mention a country, where we can sit in a room together and have different points of view and have a respectful conversation with one another. The theater can be the nexus of that conversation. I think it's a place where we can invite various points of view, various ideas to sit in a room together—and I'm very excited about that."

Each night's performance will be followed by a professionally moderated post-show discussion featuring journalists, expatriates and activists representing different views of the conflict.

"We don't always know the other side," observes director Hemphill. "For me it's an enormous education to be able to hear the other side. I think that's really important."

"If we keep people as an abstraction," says Haj, "we can behave toward them as if they were less than human; we can behave toward them as if they were an abstraction. But if I have to deal with you, as an individual, I have to deal with your humanity.

"That's where theater steps in," he concludes. "We can put a human face on a community, a situation. We can bring people together."

There will be six performances of When the Bulbul Stopped Singing from Wednesday, Sept. 12 through Sunday, Sept. 16, with panel discussions to take place after each performance. For tickets and information on the individual discussion panels, visit www.playmakersrep.org.

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