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Tennis in Nablus

a World Premiere
CATEGORY : COMEDY DRAMA
by Ismail Khalidi

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Hertz Stage [WEBSITE]
ID# 3633

SHOWING : January 29, 2010 - February 21, 2010

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Description from the Alliance: "Palestine. 1939. Allegiances--and identities--are never what they seem. Under British colonial rule, two nations buckle under conflicting claims to the land they believe is rightfully theirs. And as the world explodes around them, one divided family seeks to achieve both peace and freedom, which in this case seem mutually exclusive.

"Tennis in Nablus is the sixth winner of the nationally recognized Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition."


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Peggy Shannon
Casting Harriet Bass
Set Design Brian Sidney Bembridge
Sound Design Clay Benning
Casting Jody Feldman
Dramaturg Celise Kalke
Costume Design Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design Mike Post
Production Stage Manager R. Lamar Williams
Hirsch Andrew Benator
Yusef Demosthenes Chrysan
Ambara Suehyla El-Attar
Gen. Falbour Bart Hansard
Tariq Bhavesh Patel
Rajib Jim Sarbh
O'Donegal Michael Simpson
Hajj Waleed Tom Thon
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Roots of Terror
by Dedalus
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
3.5
This year’s Kendeda Playwrighting winner, Ismail Khalidi’s “Tennis in Nablus,” is a tense, ultimately effective historical look at the roots of the modern Palestinian movement. Well-designed and very well-acted, it nevertheless makes an unfortunate choice in “dehumanizing” the “others,” draining them of all humanity until they seem little more than cartoons. Considering how well-written the principle characters are, how sympathetic their plight, this is a very unfortunate choice, and undercuts any political points it is making.

Yusef and Tariq have been imprisoned in Nablus by Colonial British military forces (who insist on being referred to as “Your Excellency” by the “natives”). Yusef is an old-school revolutionary, steeped in Palestinian nationalism and recently returned from a two-year imprisonment. Tariq is his nephew, a thoroughly Westernized collaborator with financial and social contacts who should be his salvation, but, significantly, delay in doing so. Yusef’s wife, Ambara, writes political tracts under a male pseudonym which serve to stoke the fires of rebellion. Through the course of the play, Yusef is beaten and both men are degraded (made to be “ball boys” for the British overlords) until the inevitable conclusion, Tariq’s transformation into a dedicated revolutionary.

While the play doesn’t address the issue of religious jihad (in fact, non-European Jews are often referred to as “brothers” of the Palestinians), it nevertheless shows the nationalistic roots of the Modern Israeli/Palestinian conflict, how it was the British and their “Zionist” allies (“Zionist” defined as a European Jew) that carry the onus for the Palestinian sense of displacement and outrage. And the argument is compelling, given the situation and experiences faced by Yusef and Tariq.

The problem is that the British are here portrayed as cardboard villains, as sadistic buffoons without an ounce of credibility to their characters. To underscore the “Colonialism is bad” theme (and, for the record, I think Colonialism IS bad), the guards at the prison are an Irishman and an Indian, both chafing under the yoke of British overrule, both eager to help their hapless prisoners.

Yes, there were obviously Buffoons and Sadists in the British Colonial Class, but portraying them as such here (Bart Hansard’ General Falbour is so over-the-top ridiculous, he’d be equally at home in a Monty Python sketch) “stacks the deck” too much, turns them into cartoons who seem to be from another play entirely. Making them so “less than human” ironically makes a case for terrorism – after all, if all British are like this, what does it matter if their wives and children are also swept up in the bloodbath that is the result of revolution-now terrorism-to-come?

To be sure, what salvages this play are the performances by the leads. Demosthenes Chrysan is a multi-layered Yusef, flirtatious and wryly humorous with his family and friends, passionate about his cause, stoic in his suffering. Bhavesh Patel has the harder job, convincing us of his Western sympathies (which he does), showing outrage at his treatment (which he does), and believably making the transition to future activism (which he does). He even makes the start of his transition – a large crowd outside the prison shouting his name – an amusing ego-boost massage that leads to an ultimately sincere conversion. And Suehyla El-Attar gives her usual outstanding performance as Ambara, a well-written character who is more than mere political construct, despite the fact that she spends most of her time alone quoting her own writings.

Although Bart Hansard and Joe Knezevich give what they can to their British characters, they are too ham-strung by the caricature-based writing to ever make them come alive. On the other hand, Michael Simpson and Jim Sarbh give the Irish and Indian guards enough dimension to give the cruel prison scenes a resonance and dimension that intensify the impact. Andrew Benator and Tom Thon are also effective in multiple roles.

To its credit, this is a very well-designed piece. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s beautiful set features sandstone arches with wrought-iron rails backing a wide-open space that is divided into “prison” (stage left) and “home” (stage right) areas. A 2nd-floor balcony is reserved for the British to look down on everything. Mike Post’s lighting beautifully suggests the hot Nablus sun, the warm home area, the chilly dungeon. More to the point, an incredibly effective shadow at the climax bleeds from prison to home to dramatically underscore the horror of what has happened, and is one of the most effective uses of light (and shadow) I’ve seen in a long time.

So, in the final analysis, I wanted to really love this play, to be as moved as I was by “…said Said,” a previous Kandeda winner. Unfortunately, the British caricatures ruined any suspense for me, and, although the play successfully aroused my sympathies for the Palestinian protagonists, it missed that “final step” that would have (or should have) made me care about them or their cause after the final curtain.

That being said, Ismail Khalidi is definitely a playwright to watch, and “Tennis in Nablus” is a promising start to what will no doubt be a long career.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





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Anti-Zionist message spoils good play
by Terminus
Sunday, January 31, 2010
2.0
From 1936-39, Arabs revolted against the British mandate in Palestine. Under that backdrop, a new piece of historical fiction called “Tennis in Nablus” has been brought to the stage of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater.

Although historians have disputed the concept of “Palestinian” identity as a modern invention, the play depicts a “Palestinian” movement with “Palestinian” leaders in 1939 chaffing under twin evils of British rule and a Zionist land grab.

The drama opens after a roguish “Palestinian” rebel Yusef is freed from two years of British imprisonment on the island of Seychelles. Yusef quickly splashes back into the political scene of Palestine by stealing the uniform of and impersonating a British officer, then hosting a comical Arab eggplant peddler who happens to be smuggling arms for the revolt.

Yusef’s theft of the British uniform prompts an angry visit by feckless Lt. Douglas Duff. Tensions escalate at Yusef’s home, ultimately leading to Yusef’s re-arrest. Yusef’s nephew, a well-to-do Arab businessman named Tariq who wants nothing to do with the revolt, is also caught up in the sweep of the house.

Next we meet General Falbour, a crude racist windbag in charge of British troops in Nablus. Although advertisements and the program for the play emphasize the “humanity and complexity” and of life in Palestine, there is nothing nuanced about Falbour--he is a caricature developed by Ismail Khalidi (who won the national Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition last year for this script) to put Western foreign policy in the worst possible light.

To make sure the audience understands that Falbour and British officialdom are inherently racist, Falbour gets ready for a costume party by donning an African warrior headdress and blackface. When Lt. Duff tells the general that the costume party isn’t until later in the week, Falbour removes the African apparel but leaves on the blackface. Falbour goes on to make a series of anti-Semitic slurs. Later on, in an absurd and offensive effort to convey alleged and baseless fascist sympathies of 1930s Britain, Falbour even dresses up in semi-tribute as Adolph Hitler.

While being detained Falbour’s “dungeon,” Yusef is abused by the prison guards at night. Yusef falsely tells his interrogators that Tariq is a bankroller for the Arab revolt. Tariq’s connections among British and Jewish business and political circles suddenly become useless to Tariq, and as the allegation spreads beyond the prison, Tariq becomes regarded by Arabs and British alike as a terrorist financier.

Tariq and Yusef are forced to be ball boys (“like monkeys”) while Falbour and Duff play tennis. It’s this dehumanizing treatment, and the support of protestors that Yusef and Tariq elicit from the Arab street, that combine to radicalize Tariq into a new supporter of the revolt. Tariq promises his uncle that, if released, he will in fact become a financier of the Palestinian cause.

Although Yusef may have the most lines, the story is essentially Tariq’s, and is about his journey from collaborator to resistor. (There is also a significant storyline about Yusef’s wife, who writes opinion pieces under an assumed name to stoke the Palestinian uprising.) In this way, the play makes a hero out of one of the first bankrollers of Palestinian terror.

The anti-Israel political message of “Tennis in Nablus” is one-sided and may be upsetting for Jewish audiences. The Arab characters stress that they perceive the Jews as their “cousins” who have been warped by their experiences in the European countries they have fled to resettle in Palestine. That is how the playwright unsuccessfully attempts to convince us that the Arab revolt had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but rather that it was all about Palestinian nationalism, local property ownership, and political independence.

The thinly veiled comparisons to the contemporary U.S. presence in Iraq are also troubling for this American reviewer. Yusef’s banishment to Seychelles is a metaphor for Guantanamo Bay, Falbour’s prison is a shot against Abu Ghraib, and the depiction of British officers (who intentionally mispronounce “Arab” like “A-rab,” rhyming with Ahab), is intended to demonstrate the insensitivities, heavy-handedness, and ignorance of an occupying Western power.

Despite its skewed politics, “Tennis in Nablus” succeeds as drama. The characters are engaging; the dialogue is often humorous and delivered with pitch-perfect comedic timing by a rock solid cast of actors. The play is well-paced and successfully maintains a light mood despite the serious subject matter. The set design, sound effects, lighting are all excellent.

Demosthenes Chrysan is exceptional in the role of Yusef, exuding force and irreverence as a charismatic fighter for his people and their cause. Bhavest Patel and Suehyla el-Attar stand out for very strong performances as Yusef’s nephew and wife. Bart Hansard, on the other hand, lost an opportunity to bring any nuance to the role of Gen. Falbour, and instead either chose or was instructed by director Peggy Shannon to be the butt of a venomous anti-British joke.

The cast received a standing ovation at the performance I attended, which I can only hope was applause for the quality of the acting and not the political message of the play.

“Tennis in Nablus” opened on Friday night and will run through February 21. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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