Alternative Transnationals: Naomi Wallace and Cross-Cultural Performances

In summer 2002, the paths of war crisscrossed American public discourse. The war in Afghanistan had continued for over half a year, and the Bush Administration was beginning to lay the groundwork of lies and misinformation that would form the justification for invading Iraq. Meanwhile, Naomi Wallace led a group of six playwrights, along with Kia Corthron, Tony Kushner, Robert O’Hara, Lisa Schlesinger, and Betty Shamieh into occupied Palestine to meet with theater artists there and learn about the conditions under which Palestinian artists and people worked and lived during the Second Intifada. The following year, American Theatre published a series of responses from the playwrights, remarkable in the different ways in which they constructed the narratives of their contacts with occupied Palestine. Tony Kushner, for one, filtered the experience through an analysis of his Jewish American identity, with considerable attention to the copy of Gershom Scholem’s letters that he carried with him, concluding, “Because I went with a diverse group of people, I saw things I might have missed, and because I am a Jew I think I saw things others didn’t see.”1 Similarly, in a comparison of human rights abuses against Palestinians and his own African American experience, Robert O’Hara wrote the word “I” fifty-one times in responding to the conditions of Palestinians.2 And Palestinian American Betty Shamieh created parallel narratives between her own life growing up in America and the life she didn’t feel she would be strong enough to endure had her parents stayed in Ramallah.3 This is not to say that any of these are invalid responses. Personal responses to traumatic conditions are greatly varied in form and substance. However, they are a stark contrast to the closing narrative in the article, that by Naomi Wallace. She is the only one of the writers to use an Arabic word, referencing the debka, a traditional dance; the only one to draw from the literary heritage of Palestine, quoting now-deceased poet Mahmoud Darwish; and one of only two, alongside Lisa Schlesinger, to quote someone that the group encountered, providing the words of a twelve-year-old girl who told Wallace, “Yes, I throw stones at tanks. But I would rather play . . . When I grow up, I want to be a doctor.” Perhaps this is why Wallace wrote not only of her reaction as an American, but her obligation as an American:

To visit the Occupied Territories, the West Bank and Gaza as theatre writers is not simply an exercise in forging links between ourselves and the Palestinians. Rather, it is to realize that we, as Americans, are, on an intensely intimate level, already fused, through the overt involvement of our government, with the history of these people . . . We are not, I thank the gods, only ourselves and our own personal experience. We are also what happens to one another.4

There is much to commend such a statement, both in its departure from the inward focused statements of Wallace’s fellow travelers—and the inward focused writing of much American theater—and in her commitment to making Americans aware of their role in perpetuating the occupation, and all of its itinerant conditions, of Palestine. Additionally, the idea that “We are also what happens to one another” would also seem like a modus operandi for the playwright, whose oeuvre stretches not just from performances around the world, but also to the American-Mexican border to the wars in Iraq and Palestine and to the struggle of union organizers. As such, Wallace’s work, particularly The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East—and the ideas that support it—serves as a strong example of what it means to be a meaningfully transnational artist. This analysis will thus begin with an examination of the deployment of the term “transnational,” as well as an exploration of how this concept is deployed in explorations of contemporary theater productions. This transnational frame will then illuminate how Wallace’s practice of theater moves beyond notions of international economic movement toward an argument for an intimate understanding of a diverse range of lives, and a personal contact—both in artistic and activist engagements—between those lives.

In its most basic sense, the term “transnational” is not the subject of much debate. As Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden write, “the transnational can be understood as the global forces that link people or institutions across nations. Key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national sovereignty as a regulatory force in global coexistence.”5 While this would imply that one aspect of transnationalism is the various multinational systems of economic, political, and communicative arrangements that make up the contemporary era, John Carlos Rowe also notes that the concept of transnationalism has come to include “a critical view of historically specific late modern or postmodern practices of globalizing production, marketing, distribution, and consumption for neocolonial ends.”6 Thus, the transnational consists of both the multinational influences on contemporary life and the multinational resistances to those influences. In the realm of the arts, much early scholarship on transnationalism came from the field of film studies, which existed at the intersection of both the economic and political debates over influences of transnationalism. As Ezra and Rowden write, “Cinema has from its inception been transnational, circulating more or less freely across borders and utilizing international personnel. This practice has continued from the era of Chaplin, Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang up to contemporary directors like Ang Lee, Mira Nair, and Alfonso Cuarón.”7 However, in the modern era, this movement of capital and labor has been expedited and expanded, and alongside it has developed an alternative cinema—by artists such as Ken Loach, Zhangke Zia, and Jafar Panahi—that explore the political, economic, and cultural impacts of such movements.

Theater, however, as an embodied art form, does not transport with the expediency of a DVD, and discussions of transnationalism have taken on a different shape in theater studies, focusing more on the latter question of representational concerns. To the extent that structural elements have been discussed, they have tended to focus on international lines of influence on contemporary artists. The collection Not the Other Avant-Garde, for example, argues for a decentering of the avant-garde outside of the European experience, claiming that “the first- and second-wave avant-gardes (pre- and post-World War II) were always already a transnational phenomenon, and that the performative gestures of these avant-gardes were culturally hybrid forms that emanated simultaneously from a wide diversity of sources rather than from a European center.”8 In the same collection, Marvin Carlson advocates for the necessity of understanding the indigenous influence on Middle Eastern theater, rather than merely looking for European influences.9 All of this is, undoubtedly, important scholarship. However, none of it asks what it means to think across borders, rather than to merely be influenced by multiple traditions.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message