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Palestinian Play 'The Siege' Finally Gets U.S. Premiere


A new play in New York centers on Palestinian militants who hid from the Israeli army for over a month in 2002 inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that "The Siege," not surprisingly, is controversial.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "The Siege" opens violently...


ULABY: ...With the combatants breaking into the church and begging a monk to let them stay.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Arabic).

ULABY: "We're here because we have no place else to go," one says. "The Israeli army is everywhere." The play is performed by a Palestinian theater company in Arabic with surtitles. The men argue over cigarettes and politics, talk about missing their families and stave off boredom by singing.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Arabic).

ULABY: "The Siege" was written by Palestinian playwright Nabil al-Raee. He spent a year and a half researching the script by talking to actual fighters, most of whom are now in exile.

NABIL AL-RAEE: We wanted to meet these people and know, what is their stories? What happened to them? But also, we met people from the church, people in Bethlehem. We wanted to meet everybody, even trying to meet the Israeli army if we could.

ULABY: But al-Raee says the Israeli army was not interested in his research. When "The Siege" toured the United Kingdom in 2015, it was protested and boycotted because critics said it was one-sided and promoted terrorism. Theater director Ari Roth knows the situation well.

ARI ROTH: The cultural community winds up mirroring the political discourse.

ULABY: Roth used to run a progressive Jewish theater company in Washington, D.C. Then he tried to stage an Israeli play that spoke of atrocities against Palestinians. He ended up losing his job. Now he runs another theater and says he's seen multiple companies commit to, then walk away from shows like "I Am Rachel Corrie," "Crossing Jerusalem" and the opera "The Death Of Klinghoffer" all for the same reason.

ROTH: That they're too pro-Palestinian. I mean, I think that you are giving a platform for people to be angry with Israel. And you are giving a platform for those who are looking at the plight of the Palestinians and seeing a people victimized.

ULABY: Just this week, the American Jewish Historical Society in New York canceled a reading of a play that criticized Israel. As a self-described middle-of-the-roadnik (ph), Roth has no problem with Palestinian voices on stage. Neither does Jay Wegman, who runs the theater in New York that's putting on "The Siege."

JAY WEGMAN: Arabic voices are rarely heard. And even more specifically, Palestinian artists aren't all that well represented in New York.

ULABY: At least one other New York theater had thought about staging "The Siege" and decided not to, reportedly under pressure from its board. Wegman says his theater, New York University's Skirball Center, sees the show as an educational experience.

WEGMAN: We're trying not to politicize it. It's political enough. So we're not out there, you know, banging the BDS drum.

ULABY: BDS, as in boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Instead, NYU is bringing the lead Israeli army negotiator during the actual siege to speak about his experience in conjunction with the play. Talkbacks after shows will feature the likes of Tony Kushner, the celebrated Jewish-American playwright of "Angels In America." And Wegman says he wants people critical of the play to come see it, people like Josh Glancy.

JOSH GLANCY: I grew up in a very Jewish environment, a very Zionist environment, and I was very interested in the play because I just don't have that much exposure to it.

ULABY: It being Palestinian culture. Glancy reviewed "The Siege" for The Jewish Chronicle when the play toured the United Kingdom.

GLANCY: My main issue with it was I didn't think it was a very good piece of theater. From a technical perspective, I was disappointed. As a piece of polemic, it's - you know, it's powerful.

ULABY: Ultimately, Glancy feels "The Siege" lacks context.

GLANCY: Instead you get a lot of rage. And I totally understand where that rage comes from. But it wasn't very instructive, and it was hard to empathize with them because they were just kind of shouting at you.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Arabic).

ULABY: "The Siege" is produced by The Freedom Theatre, part of an arts center based in the Jenin refugee camp. It was founded by an Israeli. Her son, the theater's first director, was shot and killed leaving the center six years ago. His murder remains unsolved. Nabil al-Raee says his play "The Siege" carries on the center's commitment to dialogue and understanding.

AL-RAEE: We made a play. We never brought a tank into the stage. We brought a play. This is why art is important to open the way for people to agree or disagree, negotiate, talk.

ULABY: And take part in a lively discussion that increasingly includes Arab voices on New York stages from the Tony Award-winning drama "Oslo" to the upcoming musical "The Band's Visit." Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.