SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace)
by John Stoltenberg
“You have to be a good Arab,” says Morad Hassan of the stigma he faces trying to have a career as an Arab actor in Israel—the very country where, he says, “we are the Jews of the Jews.”
“FREE PALESTINE,” says the T-shirt worn by Israeli playwright Einat Weizman—the very shirt, imprinted with the PLO flag, that prompted a torrent of online abuse when a photo of her in it appeared on a popular internet site.
In SHAME 2.0 just opened at Mosaic, these two scrappy artist-activists from the front lines of a culture war tell their extraordinary and instructive stories. In form, the show is a vivid theatrical scrapbook—a patchwork of monologues, TV news clips, projections, citations from cyberhate, vitriolic voicemails. In intent, SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s DIY docudrama of how they tried to make art to make change and what it cost them. In effect, SHAME 2.0 goes to the heart of what’s dangerous about dissident art.
The backstage history of SHAME 2.0 is a drama in itself. Weizman adapted it from an earlier work that she and Hassan co-authored titled SHAME. Mosaic Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth—who met them in Israel when both were acting in a play that Mosaic would later stage as The Return—imported the project and for a time was announced as a co-adapter. But, as Roth explains in his program note, that changed:
A funny thing happened on the way to the workshopping of Shame 2.0—I began losing control of a story that wasn’t mine. And by the middle of the second week of rehearsals, a script I believed was approaching its definitive state, turned out not to be: not in the eyes of the collaborators who mattered most.
Now onstage as part of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival—in what’s deftly called a world premiere workshop production, directed gingerly by John Vreeke—SHAME 2.0 had conflicts during rehearsals so serious there was talk of calling it off. Luckily for DC theatergoers and theater makers who prefer art not stripped of principles, the show did go on.
Hassan, an appealingly dexterous actor, plays himself with great charm. For the first half hour or so, he regales us with stories of indignity from his life as a working actor in Israel’s politically fraught theater scene. As the only Arab student in Hebrew University, for instance, he finds out no Palestinian writers are taught. He is type-cast in Arab roles (thus “You have to be a good Arab”), then gets a gig in Waiting for Godot playing a Palestinian speaking Hebrew. The pinnacle of his thespian identity disjunction (call it TID) is his turn as Shakespeare’s Shylock. But in an amazing turnabout, Hassan delivers Shylock’s famous speech…
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
…and in his wrenching performance, we can hear the voice of an Arab appealing for equal treatment from Jews. It is one of the most moving moments of the evening.
Up next for another half hour or so is the very principled Weizman. Though portrayed here by Colleen Delany with fetching conviction, Weizman was in real-life widely reviled for her beliefs. Her story interweaves two trenchant threads. One is what happened to her when her photograph in that T-shirt prompted a horrendous online attack of hate speech, some of which tweets and Facebook posts are incorporated graphically into the show (hence “comments from the populace”). Delany as Weizman hands out a dozen cards to audience members and at points asks them to be read aloud. “Thank you for…playing along,” Delany/Weizman says wryly. Even for someone familiar with the cesspool of misogynist invective in cyberspace, hearing ordinary folks give voice in public to such real-life insults can be unsettling. “Thank you,” she says graciously after each.
Weizman’s other narrative is about state suppression of dissident Palestinian artists in Israel. For instance, funding for Israel’s only Arab-speaking theater, Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, was summarily frozen after it staged a play alleged to incite terrorism (it didn’t; it was simply a docudrama about a prisoner convicted on dubious grounds of killing an Israeli soldier). To amplify and personalize this censorship, a third character has been added for the American run: Israel’s current culture minister, Miri Regev, the stylish right-winger who decreed the funding cutoffs and required that Arab artists sign a pro-Israel loyalty oath. Regev is the heavy of the story, and it’s a challenging role to play at all likably, but Lynette Rathnam in it succeeds with remarkable aplomb.
Introducing the play on opening night, Associate Artistic Director Victoria Murray Baatin explained that this workshop would be a “stripped down” version. Nothwithstanding that disclaimer, the production was very well outfitted by a creative team that included Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga, Costume Designer Brandee Mathies, Projections Designer Dylan Uremovich (whose rear-wall animations much enhanced the storytelling), Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson (whose audio clips from hate tweets also propelled the story), and Sound Engineer Robert Garner (whose mic’ing of the cast gave appreciated clarity to each speech).
In the end, what stands out in SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s insistence on their right to their own voice in art and their persistence in the face of prejudice and vilification. Even behind the scenes, as the script intimates, they did not quit advocating for what they needed to say and how they needed to say it. As the slogan “Nothing about us without us!” gains traction in American theater, Mosaic is again at the cutting, and very complex, edge. Anyone who cares about art that matters must not miss this inspiring instance of what makes theater worth it—and what makes making such theater hard.
Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.
SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace) plays through February 17, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.