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The Power of Art in Times of War
In times of conflict are artists mere spectators? Or, should their art speak to the moment? The stage play The Return shows us how art can serve as a beacon of understanding and compassion.
There are no precision-guided missiles striking apartment blocks, no lines of men, women and children trudging through arduous checkpoints, and no battle-ready soldiers waiting in the shadows. In the stage play The Return, there is only a solitary space — a room; and two human beings — a Palestinian and an Israeli who must face each other, the society, and most importantly themselves. First premiered in 2014 at Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, Israel, The Return (written by playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast) is a powder keg of raw, visceral emotion and a clarifying window into life in Israel. The Return is also a powerful testament to how art can serve as a vanguard of truth, hope, introspection, and the conscience of society.
When I walked into Dunya Productions’ theatrical space, I didn’t know what to expect from The Return. I had already read many articles, watched numerous films, and had subjected myself to the many gruesome images of suffering and death in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank. But as I sat transfixed by the unfolding drama on stage between an Israeli and Palestinian living inside Israel, I began to understand the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis in a way no news report or talking head political pundit could ever explicate. I could see myself in them. I could see my struggles as an African American living with the personal and political consequences of systemic racism and state-sanctioned apartheid. I saw the struggles of my father who grew up in Jamaica, a British colony. I saw the struggles of my maternal grandfather who was denied an education and his freedom under the Jim Crow laws of Arkansas. But I could also see my arrogance and ignorance as a citizen of the United States. The Return helped me remember that I once assumed that anyone could live anywhere they wanted; only to be disabused of that erroneous notion by a Palestinian photographer who detailed the violent humiliations and arbitrary restrictions he endured while traveling abroad. The Return reminded me that I once watched the televised “shock and awe” bombing of an Iraqi city while eating lunch and chatting with coworkers in a Los Angeles high-rise. Monstrous. The Return reminded me that it has taken me a lifetime to begin to fully grasp my position as the oppressed, oppressor, enabler, decoy, liberator, tool, fool, and wise-woman. The Return illuminates the reality that every human being is a vast well of complexity of which we can only glimpse a peek at the most intimate levels of interaction. The Return is not just a play; it’s a mirror in which we can see ourselves clearly; it is a seismic disruption that can shake us from our complacency.
This is the power of art.
I’ve created the Artists Under Siege event to give artists a forum where they can engage in substantial reflection about their role in difficult times. Are we as artists mere spectators or should we attempt to create art that speaks to the moment? Join us online or in-person on Friday, November 17, 2023 at 7pm. This month’s guest artists are Danitra Hunter, O, and Shima Star.
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