Jenin Freedom Theater

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Oct. 18, 2011

An outer wall of the Jenin Freedom Theater in

An outer wall of the Jenin Freedom Theater in the West Bank

A refugee camp isn’t the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of creative or nurturing environments. And it’s not. But the performers of the Jenin Freedom Theater, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, have created a space where art flourishes amid strife and squalor.

Last Tuesday evening, four performers from the Jenin Freedom Theater came to the atrium of Mandel Center for the Humanities. They had each been personally affected by the violence that they have seen as refugees living in the camp, which covers an area of two square miles and houses about 16,000 people. The performers were angry with the Israeli Army for its brutal treatment of the inhabitants of Jenin. They hoped to create positive change through their art.

Josh Perlstein ’79, one of the organizers of the event, shared his view of the goal of the Freedom Theater in a phone interview with justArts. “The goal of the theater is to use theater as a means of liberation, for Palestinians and for all people. If people could focus their fear through a process of creation, it would move people in a positive direction. They are trying to humanize the people in the theater and anyone who they interact with. If you act as a liberator, you liberate all people, not justyourself.”

The theater’s first incarnation was known as the Stone Theater. An Israeli woman named Arna Mer came to the Jenin Refugee Camp originally as the founder of the relief organization Defense of Children under Occupation. One of the Jenin actors, Mustapha, recounted the story of Mer’s first days in the camp: “Arna showed up one day, an Israeli woman in the middle of the West Bank. She just came with papers and other arts supplies and started engaging with the young children in the street. At first, people thought she was a spy. Then, a woman named Samira decided, ‘I will host this woman. She will live in my house.’ She could see that Arna was just [trying to help the children]. From that day on, everyone trusted Arna.”

Established in 1992 during the first Intifada, a guerilla war between Israel and its Palestinian inhabitants, the Stone Theater was the first public theater to be built in the West Bank. The theater,  along with much of the camp, was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 2000, during the second Intifada. Most of the theater students died in the attack.

Members of the Jenin Freedom Theater hope to provide an artistic outlet for their people’s fear and anger.

Members of the Jenin Freedom Theater hope to provide an artistic outlet for their people’s fear and anger.

Mer’s son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, rebuilt the theater in 2006 and renamed it the Jenin Freedom Theater. (Mer-Khamis was an established Israeli actor and director. In 2002, he was nominated for an Ophir Award (the Israeli version of an Oscar) for Best Actor in the film Kedma, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.)

After the death of his mother in 1995, Mer-Khamis became personally involved in the Stone Theater’s work. After rebuilding the theater, he moved to Jenin to become more involved. The performers couldn’t speak highly enough of their mentor on Tuesday night. “Juliano was creating individual freedom in the Jenin Refugee Camp. That can be very dangerous,” said one speaker. The others agreed that they would still be “street punks” or small-time criminals if it wasn’t for Mer-Khamis. These comments were overshadowed by a depressed spirit among the Jenin representatives: Mer-Khamis was assassinated by an unknown gunman on April 4 this year. The theater community is still recovering from the shocking murder.

As part of the talk, the performers showed clips from some of their recent performances, including a retelling of Alice in Wonderland and an original production called Fragments of Palestine. These clips did not show dialogue from the plays (which are written in or translated into Arabic) but rather dances, fight scenes or scenes set to music.

“The performers chose material that fits with the theme of liberation,” Perlstein clarified. “They assigned different characters in the play that are analogous to characters from their lives. They translate or adapt various works to fit with their own experiences.”

Some of the members of the audience at the event (mostly older people from outside of Brandeis) criticized the clips for containing too much violence. One woman asked if the theater was trying to end the violence in the camp or if they were just promoting it in a different medium.

“I don’t think you understood the clips if you think we are promoting violence,” Mustapha responded. “The actors in the theater take what they see in their daily lives and put it on stage.” Another performer agreed, “Theater becomes a refugee for … the people of Jenin. It’s therapy. When people come to the theater, they see what is in their heads.”

The Jenin Freedom Theater staged their adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”

The four performers themselves have all been “saved” by the theater. One performer recalled that he was a petty criminal, stealing cars and selling drugs, but that he really wanted to be an actor. So he went to Mer-Khamis for a part in the theater. Since then, the young man has immersed his life entirely in acting. He recounted that he would go about his day and “go to parties in costume and in-character.” It became a part of his daily life.

Perlstein added his own view of the work the theater has accomplished in Jenin: “You can tell just from the people who came to speak how much the Theater has affected them. Their options were very limited. They were all headed down a negative path, and the Theater gave them options to see different ways to live their lives. In a community-based theater, it becomes inspirational. In the largest sense for the people involved but also for the audience. If they keep going the way they are they could have a huge impact on the neighborhood.”

The talk on Tuesday was part of a tour the company is doing to promote their work overseas. They will next be performing Waiting for Godot at Columbia University and will be appearing at a benefit at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, hosted by the celebrated playwright Tony Kushner.

Academy Award Winner Louis Gossett Jr. Speaks About Racism in Film

Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. discusses race in film at the Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

Nov. 16, 2010

Acclaimed actor Louis Gossett Jr. gave a talk about racism in entertainment on Tuesday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall in a thought-provoking event sponsored by the Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism. Phyllis Karas, who helped to write his memoir, titled An Actor and a Gentleman, moderated the talk. Gossett was introduced by Prof. Anita Hill (Heller), who gave a touching introduction. Hill recalled how, when she was growing up, seeing black faces on television was an event unto itself. Gossett was one of the first actors to break the racial barrier in entertainment, and Hill thanked him for his outstanding work. Gossett is most widely known for playing Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1983. He was the first African-American to win that award. An Officer and a Gentleman co-starred Richard Gere and Debra Winger, who was also nominated for Best Actress for her performance. The film centers around Zach Mayo (played by Gere), a young navy officer-in-training who learns about friendship and love while attending the Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School. Gossett played his tough-as-nails training officer.

Gossett recounted several stories from his time on the set of the movie, describing how he trained at a genuine Marine training camp and how he was allowed to appear in front of the rest of the cast only when dressed in his full military uniform, as per director Taylor Hackford’s instructions. He also praised Richard Gere’s work as an actor, saying that Gere should have received an Oscar at this point in his career, though he did not mention for which role.

An Officer and a Gentleman was the film that launched Gossett into the conscience of mainstream America, but, in fact, the actor appeared in his first professional gig 30 years earlier, at age 17, in the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. Eight years later, he starred in his first feature film, A Raisin in the Sun, in which he played George Murchison opposite Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Gossett has worked with many of old Hollywood’s most notable figures, including Marilyn Monroe. He told a great story describing an instance in which he and Monroe took a drama class together. One day she called him and asked him to perform a love scene with her from the play Kiss of the Spider Woman. Gossett declined, saying “No way. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate.” It’s hard to believe anyone could have resisted Marilyn. Gossett asserted that “if she had stayed with [ex-husband] Arthur Miller, she would have won three or four Oscars, and she would still be alive today.”

Gossett himself battled substance abuse, which he recounts in his memoir. He mentioned this period briefly, however, and only in passing during the talk. Most of the conversation focused on his long career and on the not-for-profit he created, the Eracism Foundation. According to its website, the foundation “engag[es] youth involved in gang activity with a series of intensive antiviolence camp initiatives and forums designed to promote peace, antiviolence, personal responsibility and re-entry into positive, productive citizenship.” It also sponsors “after school programs focusing on mentoring and tutorial services to nurture the academic and professional development of children from diverse communities.” Gossett says that at this point in his life (he is 74) he wants to dedicate himself to “an all-out conscientious offensive against racism.”

The actor has personal as well as moral reasons for taking on this battle. Growing up in Coney Island, N.Y., Gossett describes having friends of many ethnicities. It was the adults in his life who seemed to be the ones who cared about his skin color. He recalled one episode in which he was not allowed in a swimming pool with the rest of his friends because it was for whites only. When he was told he had to leave, the rest of his friends went with him. These demonstrations of support meant a great deal to Gossett, and the actor remarked that many of those same kids from Abraham Lincoln High School are still his close friends today.

When Gossett moved out to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to pursue acting, however, his race became a larger issue. On one of his first days in the city, the studio gave Gossett a car to drive. On his way back to his hotel, he was stopped on several occasions by different policemen, none of whom could believe a black man could be driving such a nice automobile. Later that day, when Gossett went for a walk around his new neighborhood, police questioned him and then handcuffed him to a tree for 3 hours. These events, as well as the gang violence that Gossett sees spreading through urban centers like his old neighborhood, motivated him to create his foundation as part of his work against bigotry.

Gossett Jr. was an engaging speaker, and I enjoyed listening to his stories, which he narrated in the deep, rich delivery one would expect from a PBS documentary.

The one aspect of the talk that I found weak was the question-and-answer section. Several students asked Gossett how they could work toward changing the entertainment community’s representations of black culture, how African-Americans could better their attitudes toward their own people and how to fight racism in various aspects of life. On these important issues, Gossett seemed to struggle with how to respond. He relied on the lame answer, “You have to be the one to change it.” I expected something more from a man who is the founder of an organization that aims to address these very issues. He also made remarks about wanting to marry three different girls who asked questions. This might have been less awkward if Gossett had not in actuality been married three times already.

However, overall it was a good decision to bring Gossett to campus. He was an eloquent speaker who has had a real impact on integrating American entertainment. His current work in race relations also strongly mirrors the importance placed on social justice at Brandeis.