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Mideast blues in middle America

Canceled after charges of bias, a fact-based play about Palestinian and Israeli teens gets a reading.

February 20, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CINCINNATI — Glyn O'Malley's "Paradise" might not be lost. This city's leading theater canceled a run of the playwright's drama after accusations of both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content, but it was read before 500 Tuesday night to positive response.

The story of two teenage girls, one a Palestinian who blows herself up in a supermarket, the other an Israeli who lives in a settlement and is killed in the explosion, the 70-minute play was commissioned by the Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati's leading professional regional theater. It was scheduled to tour local schools this spring as part of the playhouse's educational program, giving students a chance to consider war's effects on girls who under other circumstances might have been friends.

But students won't be seeing "Paradise" anytime soon. The theater pulled the plug on the production and tour after a reading Dec. 16 elicited an angry response in Cincinnati's community of 15,000 Muslims. The writers group PEN and the Dramatists Guild of America deplored the cancellation.

The lesson was one others have learned when confronting the Middle East crisis. Balance is not good enough, in the minds of many. One is either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Portraying both as victims, as O'Malley does with teenagers Sara and Fatima, or trying to explain why an intelligent, normal girl becomes a suicide bomber is to walk on incendiary turf.

Edward Stern, the theater's artistic director, said he had intended the December reading as a sensitivity check within the community because of the emotional nature of the topic. He invited a small group -- including a professor of Middle Eastern studies, a rabbi and a Muslim -- hoping to elicit criticism on a play under development. The Muslim guest brought 11 members of the Islamic community, and their response was harsh.

"I was appalled, absolutely totally thrown," said O'Malley, whose work, as both a playwright and director, has been presented in New York, Amsterdam, Athens and Vienna. "There wasn't any constructive criticism. There was an assault. A lot of labels like 'racist' and 'anti-Islam' were thrown around.

"I was writing to the intractable position of two teenage girls' place in a conflict raging around them and how they were affected by that conflict. It was never my intention to demean the struggle of the Palestinian people or the struggle of the Israeli people. My focus has always been on the two girls."

Although the play is fictional, it is based on a suicide bombing last March in Jerusalem. The bomber, who lived in a refugee camp, and her victim, who had been born in Israel but spent nine years in California, looked eerily alike. The former was a top high school student who wanted to be a writer; the latter loved photography and was preparing for her graduation exams.

In the play, both girls are driven by psychological and emotional factors, not religion. Sara, who came to Israel to live with her divorced mother, shows little interest in her Jewish identity until the violence of the intifada starts to close in on her. Fatima is idealistic and youthfully innocent until her brother is killed by Israeli soldiers and her hopes are drained by the sense of being victimized by Israel.

"How many can I kill?" Fatima asks the man who straps on her explosive belt. "I want you to put in extra nails" to maximize casualties -- "the most they have ever seen."

The controversy over the play became public after Muslim representatives sent the Human Relations Committee of Cincinnati a "Fact Sheet on 'Paradise,' " calling the play vengeful and hateful and saying it did not "tell the full story of crimes against Palestinians carried out by the Israeli government during the last 54 years of brutal occupation."

The committee replied that it was not in the business of censorship.

"Canceling was my decision," said Stern, who said that in the last month he has been accused of being anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-American.

"The irony," he said, "is that I think young people would see 'Paradise' as an example of true life, as opposed to adults, who want to manipulate it to fit whatever side they want to be on."

"Paradise" was to have been the fifth play in the playhouse's school-tour series that began in 1999. Others also touched on divisive subjects, including homosexuality, parental abuse and U.S. foreign policy. Last year, after race riots in Cincinnati, the playhouse presented an abbreviated version of Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror," about race riots in Brooklyn in 1991.

"We thought it was an important and timely topic for students," said Christa Skiles, the playhouse's public relations director. "It didn't cause controversy. In fact, it resulted in a lot of good dialogue in the schools."

Most of the people who attended Tuesday's reading agreed that "Paradise" was powerful and provocative. "I'm a sucker," said Greg Hudson, a theater teacher at Northern Kentucky University. "I cried for both girls. The play is precisely what you want students to think about, that there are no easy answers."

Stern hopes Tuesday's reading helped defuse some passions and that "Paradise" can be presented in another season. And O'Malley, now besieged by inquiries from other cities interested in the play, continues to shape a seventh draft. "I'm not going quietly into that good night," he said. "We'll still have a production."

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