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April 21, 2011

Clay Carson's Martin Luther King play goes to East Jerusalem, West Bank

By Cynthia Haven

Poster for the Palestinian National Theatre's production of Passages of Martin Luther King.

Stanford's Martin Luther King scholar Clay Carson took his play, Passages of Martin Luther King, to the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem and West Bank communities in March and early April. The production, translated into Arabic and directed by Kamel El Basha, featured eight Palestinian actors, along with six African American singers who depicted King's Ebenezer Baptist Church choir and civil rights freedom fighters. The Palestinian performances followed a successful 2007 run of Passages in Beijing, performed by the National Theatre of China.

Cynthia Haven, a writer with the Stanford News Service, met with Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute and director of the King Papers Project, to discuss the Palestinian production of his play.

This was your third visit to the region. Your timing was excellent, given what's been called the "Arab Spring."

Yes, very much so. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, I realized that this would be a historic opportunity to witness a region in transition. The Palestinians with whom I've worked now have a higher degree of intensity, a higher expectation of change. The message of nonviolent resistance has a greater degree of relevance.


You mention Tunisia and Egypt. What about Libya?

We don't know the outcome of any of these revolutions. We do see that the use of nonviolence is more effective than violence in getting the attention of those in power and forcing some concessions.


Was it a surprise that the invitation to perform an Arabic Passages in East Jerusalem and the West Bank came from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem?

I'm pleased that the Consulate chose to work with the Palestinian National Theatre. Some people in the State Department probably sense that if change is going to happen, it's much better for it to take place nonviolently and to use at least a small proportion of its funds to support that possibility.


How would you describe the Palestinian response to Passages?

Overall, it's been quite positive. The Palestinian cast worked hard to create their own distinctive version of the King story, because it was understandably difficult for the actors to appreciate King's cultural and political context, including the ideological debates between King and his critics, such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

Yet these debates are going on every day in Palestinian territories. The play was simply a vehicle for Palestinians to carry on their own dialogue about alternative strategies.


You speak about Palestinian nonviolence. Of course, that is not the emphasis in the Western press.

Much of the world is not aware that Palestinians have been carrying on a sustained nonviolent struggle since the 1980s.

Many who see themselves as disciples of King and Gandhi participated in the first and second intifada – they didn't see that as inconsistent. Like the African American and South African freedom struggles, their mass struggle includes many factions, some using nonviolence only as a tactic, while others are philosophically committed to nonviolence.

We tend to look at a movement through the prism of the American press. The Palestinian movement has been largely portrayed as dominated by those who use violence. It's as if the African American movement were identified with Malcolm X and the "Black Power" firebrands who followed him.


Yet your visit to East Jerusalem and the West Bank was marked by two terrible incidents of bloodshed. How do you reconcile the contradiction?

The Palestinian movement, like any mass movement, has violent as well as nonviolent elements. I don't see this as a contradiction but just as a reality.

I still believe that the arts and humanities matter, but they matter in incremental ways – how people choose to live their lives, not how they sometimes unexpectedly become victims of deadly violence.


Did you change the script at all for your Palestinian audience?

The Palestinian director, Kamel, changed the script to get in some of his feelings and the actors' feelings about Palestinian issues. He framed my play within a play, using material that he had drafted during actor improvisations. It opened with a dysfunctional group of Palestinian actors trying to do a play about Martin Luther King.

His argument was this was a way of bringing the audience into the play. I initially thought it was a distraction from the play; it distanced them from the history. For example, when the Birmingham policeman arrests King, he started speaking in Hebrew. It generated a laugh from the audience, but it broke the tension I was trying to develop in King's story.

I came to appreciate that Kamel has a mission to create a Palestinian theater, even though I objected to using my play as his vehicle for creating a Palestinian mini-play. I recognized his dilemma. There's not a lot of funding for purely Palestinian theater. So often they're compelled to do collaborations with Americans and other foreign arts groups.


How did Palestinians respond to the African American gospel singers in the cast?

The American singers were great. [The group included Stanford alumnae Chelsi Butler and Ré Phillips, as well as Drama Department lecturer Aleta Hayes.]

Audiences loved the songs, both sacred and freedom songs, although there had been some doubts whether Palestinians would accept King's Christian cultural context.


What did the Palestinian performers say about their political situation?

The man who played Martin has spent time in Israeli jails. He lost a young brother in the struggle. His experiences enable him bring out unexpected elements in King's character. He recognized King's inner Malcolm X.

One actor I was working with said he would just as soon live under Israeli control, where he would at least know the source of problems and who is to blame. Many Palestinians explained to me they wanted to have basic human rights – from Israelis and from the Palestinian Authority.

On March 15 I went to a protest organized in Ramallah by a former student and recent Stanford graduate, Fadi Quran. He and a group of his young activist friends started a hunger strike, in the Gandhian tradition.

At 4 a.m. on the second day of their hunger strike, they get rousted by police, who take away their mattresses. Are these Israeli police? No, it's the Palestinian Authority police.

It reminded me of what's happening now in Cairo, where the Egyptian army is attacking demonstrators. The authorities had no use for the nonviolent movement. Their attitude was: "We're here to take control of this." The old guard feels threatened by a new wave of young democratic idealists.


On April 4, the founder of the theater where you had just performed – the Freedom Theatre in the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp – was murdered, almost certainly by Palestinian extremists. Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot as he was leaving his theater.

When someone like that is brutally murdered, it reinforces the urgency of what we're doing.

For the Palestinian performers, it was deeply shocking. Someone told me that this is the first time in memory that someone in the arts community was targeted for assassination.

His mother is Jewish, his father is Palestinian; he represented the possibilities of reconciliation. He created art for the most oppressed of the Palestinians. If that kind of a person can be assassinated, who is really safe?

Religious reasons may have been behind the assassination. Some could have objected to the liberalizing influence of the arts in a society where some see drama as bringing in Western ideas. A play about an American Christian might have been the final straw.




Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Clayborne Carson, History:

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