“Martyrs Street,” a realistic drama by Misha Shulman, is a gripping tale of two houses in the historical city of Hebron, in the Occupied West Bank. Shulman is a New York-based playwright and former commander in the Israeli Defense Force.
On a national level, the play examines the take-over of Israeli and Palestinian societies by their respective religious extremists. On an intimate level, it looks at the struggle between the personal and the political, which demands difficult choices on a daily basis from anyone living in that part of the world. The script has received accolades from both Jewish and Arab organizations. The run will include four post-show discussions with leading experts in order to facilitate substantive public consideration of issues raised by the piece.
The play imagines two locations on the same street in Hebron, which together represent a microcosm of the occupation. Two separate systems of justice exist there for the two peoples. Violence and hatred are built into the fabric of language and being. One of the locations is the home of a Palestinian professor who, with her teenage daughter, may be forced from her home because of the actions of her son, a bomb maker for Hamas.
The other location is a re-purposed building used as a synagogue by a cell of radical Jewish settlers. They are planning to bomb a rally of anti-settlement Jews in Jerusalem, in order to prevent the upcoming evacuation of their home through the palpable threat of civil war. The stories that unfold in these two houses intertwine to reveal the moderates left with fewer and fewer options as the logic of the radicals appears increasingly appealing.
The play was inspired by the work of Breaking the Silence: Israeli Soldiers Talk About the Occupied Territories, an Israeli non-governmental organization (NGO). The playscript has won two playwriting competitions: The Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition and the Across the Generations International Playwriting Contest. It received honorable mentions from both the Jewish Plays Project and Middle East America, a leading, nationwide Arab-American theater organization partnering with major theaters in Chicago, San Francisco and NYC. There have been staged readings in Toronto, San Diego and NYC.
Post-Play Conversation Events
This production will be partnering with several different organizations to create post-play events with the aim of creating meaningful, open conversations:
3/29 Sunday: Dotan Greenvald, a representative of Breaking the Silence: Israeli Soldiers Talk About the Occupied Territories, an Israeli NGO, will offer reflections on Hebron and reports from the war in Gaza this past summer.
4/10 Friday: Professor Ian Lustick, a prominent author, scholar, University of Pennsylvania professor, Middle East specialist and expert on Israel/Palestine will focus on issues of extremism in Israel ,Palestine and the Middle East as a whole.
4/19 Sunday: Avraham Burg, former Chairman of the Knesset and head of the Jewish Agency, speaking on Hebron and the future of equal co-existence. Sponsored by New Israel Fund. Burg has extensive family history in Hebron: half his family were killed there in the 1929 riots and the other half were saved by their Muslim landlord. He has become a leading voice for what he calls the New Israeli Left and is now one of the leading voices for co-existence.
4/26 Sunday: Ari Roth, director of Mosaic Theater in Washington, DC, who was dismissed recently after 18 seasons as director of Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center in what some called “an act of political censorship,” will address questions of theater, art and censorship, with a particular look at the challenges of presenting work about Israel and Palestine.
The play’s setting in Hebron is dramatic in itself. Its main thoroughfare, Martyrs Street (or Shari A-Shuhada in Arabic), winds all the way up the mountain from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where the fathers and mothers of the three monotheistic faiths are said to be buried. You might see a migrant Thai worker walking along, Israeli soldiers on patrol or a Jewish woman with a stroller. But Palestinians are not allowed on most of the street. Where the market used to be, the stores are shuttered and many are spray-painted with stars of David and anti-Arab graffiti. They have been closed for over a decade, since a government order shut off the area to Palestinians after violent clashes between Jews and Arabs. Every so often, Jewish settlers attempt to take over some of these buildings, and they often succeed.
The leading women’s roles in the play are significant. Noor, a recently widowed, secular Palestinian professor, receives notice that her home was built illegally and will therefore be demolished. Noor understands that she is being punished for the work of her son, Nimer, as a Hamas bomb-maker. Meanwhile Dvorah, a former Brooklynite who has been living in a settlement outpost on the same street for several years, receives notice that her home will be evacuated because it was taken over illegally. Dvorah knows that the IDF is aware of the extreme right terrorist cell operating out of her house. To rescue his mother financially, Noor’s terrorist son sells a suicide belt to Dvorah’s cousin, Tsadok, the leader of the extremist Jewish group, which his group will use in a plot to prevent their upcoming evacuation. Over the course of the drama, each woman struggles against both the evacuation of her home and the tremendous changes taking place in her personal life.
Any play, even a complex one, by a former IDF commander about terrorist Jews bombing other Jews may have seemed outlandish just a short while ago. But Operation Defensive Edge and the events of this past summer leading up to it reveal that this play does not reflect just paranoid nightmares. Since a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and gruesomely killed by religious Jews, the chant “death to the leftists” has become a common occurrence at demonstrations of the far right in Israel. Hundreds of Jewish left-wing demonstrators were physically assaulted during the war. On the Palestinian side, Hamas has proved itself willing to use children and the mentally challenged as human shields and has executed those deemed traitors. Despite the horror of these deeds, the group has grown more popular among moderate Palestinians. People in the region and around the world understand that the extremists on both sides have taken control of the reins, and that their goals, while opposite, are in practice the same – preventing a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Playwright Misha Shulman was raised in Jerusalem and served in the Israeli army as a Commander in charge of Education. His plays often confront Jewish ethical conundrums like national duty and collective guilt from the viewpoint of a liberal Israeli dissident. A New Yorker now, he is founding director of the School for Creative Judaism and is currently in training to become a rabbi. Shulman’s first TNC production, “The Fist” (2004), portrayed the dilemma of Israeli Army refuseniks. Some of the dialogue was based on personal statements of Israeli army reservists who signed a public letter stating that they refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza strip. His next TNC production, “Desert Sunrise” (2005), was a “tragedy with hope” that portrayed an encounter in the South Hebron Hills between an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian shepherd and a young, tormented Palestinian woman, revealing possibilities for “ta’ayush” (living together).
The NY Times (George Hunka ) wrote, “Misha Shulman’s elegant and affecting ‘Desert Sunrise’ makes the most of its modest and familiar narrative, and like Samuel Beckett’s classic, elicits a tragicomic resonance….As pessimistic as the final events of the play are, ‘Desert Sunrise’ nonetheless holds out a reed of hope, an essential element of theater itself.” The Jewish Tribune added, “It was a brave move for a Jewish writer to criticize his homeland at a time when it is considered politically incorrect for Jews to condemn any actions on the part of Israel.”The play has been published by TCG as part of a volume named “Salam. Peace: An Anthology of Middle Eastern-American Drama.” After debuting at TNC, it was produced at Northwestern University in 2007 at the Lillian Theatre in Los Angeles, where the LA Times (David C. Nichols) praised the piece, writing “Shulman zeroes in on the cultural specifics of the occupied South Hebron region, and his elegant language, laced throughout with Hebrew and Arabic, is tersely poetic.”
In 2008, with “Brunch at the Luthers,” he forsook dramatic realism for Dada to challenge traditional concepts of meaning through the minutia in the lives of an absurd middle-aged couple. His 2010 play, “The Fake History of George the Last,” metaphorically attacked the notion of the inevitability of violence throughout generations in an absurdist style that incorporated iconic imagery from the Book of Ecclesiastes. With “Deathscape” (2011), he employed puppet theater to analyze his dreams through archetypal political and religious symbols. All were presented by TNC. He spent 2008-9 as Writer in Residence for Toronto’s multi-award-winning Crow’s Theatre, whose director, Chris Abraham, directed a workshop of “Martyrs Street” in 2012. This TNC production is the world premiere for “Martyrs Street.”
Shulman writes, “Theater for the New City has been my theatrical home for the past ten years. The support and encouragement I’ve received there has created in me a confidence not only in engaging the world and its wonders and problems theatrically, but also in searching for new ways to express that engagement. It has shaped me as both a playwright and a director, with opportunities I received nowhere else. Crystal Field’s fierce commitment to exploring painful yet crucial truths, through her support for plays on Israel/Palestine and dozens of other issues, is brave, rare and deeply appreciated.”
Director And Actors
Director Ian Morgan is Associate Artistic Director of The New Group, where he runs its play development program and education programs and teaches classes at NYU’s Gallatin School. Directing credits include “Rough Sketch” at 59E59; “Realists,” “Progress” and “Eric Larue” at HERE, “Ham Lake” and “The Toad Poems” at Soho Playhouse, “Just about Cured” at Stella Adler, “Adult” at Abrons, “Side Street” at Theatrelab and “Sparrow” at Theatre Row. At The New Group he has directed “Critical Darling,” “A Spalding Gray Matter,” “Rich Boyfriend” and the Drama Desk Award-nominated “The Accomplices” by Bernard Weinraub. He has led developmental workshops at Barrow Street, Epic Theatre Ensemble, Cape Cod Theatre Project, Jewish Play Project, the Magic Theatre and the Playwrights’ Center.
The actors are Maria Silverman, Dahlia Azama, Bryan Burton, Jonathan Raviv, Amir Babayoff, Nicole Kontolefa, Alok Tewari and Haythem Noor. Set design is by Stephen Dobay and Caleb Levengood. Lighting design is by Driscoll Otto.
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC will present “Martyrs Street” March 26 to April 26, 2015. Previews are 3/26-27 at 8:00 PM, the official opening is 3/28 at 8:00 PM. Performances continue Sunday 3/29 at 3:00 PM, 3/31-4/2 (Tuesday-Thursday) at 8:00 PM. No shows 4/3-5 (Passover & Easter). From 4/7-4/26: Th-Sat at 8:00 PM and Sun at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $18 general admission, $16 seniors and students. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net or you can call the box office at (212) 254-1109.