Alternative Transnationals: Naomi Wallace and Cross-Cultural Performances

There is, then, very little attempt to use theater, as Yan Haiping argues for in her discussion of Asian theater, to explore how “globalization dictated by capital can be traced and contextualized through the various social formations of the human lives that it changes and interconnects and how those specific social beings actively inhabit the present global change that not only conditions their functions but also threatens to overdetermine the very constitution of their existence and signification.”10 While there is some theater work that attempts to do this, the nature of live performance, and the economics of performance, often do not allow critiques of transnational economics to function transnationally. Thus, when the Young Vic staged Clare Bayley’s The Container, a play about refugees attempting to smuggle themselves into Britain, the performance occurred inside a shipping container on a street in London. However, while this content presented a critique of those abandoned by the international flow of capital, in form, the work still presented a British writer, theater, and cast discussing issues of British concern in front of a predominantly British audience.11 Meanwhile, many works that travel internationally with international casts often replicate the economic paradigms that The Container interrogates. Thus, most critical discussions of the transnational content of theater have tended to merely use the term as a means of discussing cross-border content. In this context, Sara L. Warner has discussed Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus as a transnational work because it deals with the cross-border transport—both past and present, alive and dead—of Saartjie Baartman’s (“The Hottentot Venus”) body.12 Similarly, Jerry Wasserman writes of the Canadian play Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil as “transnational agitprop” because of the diasporic nature of the stars and its engagement with the American influence on Canadian culture.13 These works, of course, contain transnational content, as well as critiques of transnational exploitation, but there is nothing particularly transnational about their form or the audiences that they perform before, although Ali and Ali did at least go on the road, with a variable script. In the end, though, if critiques of local political and economic policies are to significantly involve the effects of those policies on distant peoples, there must be some way for theater to meaningfully contact the people discussed.

This challenge returns this discussion to Naomi Wallace, an artist whose work has attempted to overcome physical and mental borders. Years before the previously discussed trip to Palestine, she crafted what remains her most famous play, In the Heart of America, the story of a white American and a Palestinian American soldier during the first Gulf War, which touches on issues of race, class, and sexuality not often mixed on American stages, where Palestinian bodies are rarely present in any form. However, this play remains within the bounds of those works discussed above that exist as transnational merely in their content. More recently, her play Twenty-One Positions, a Cartographic Dream of the Middle East involved working with Jewish and Palestinian artists to construct “a kind of Brechtian musical about the illegal Wall,” as Wallace explains it, thereby moving toward a more transnational process to match the content of the work.14 However, it is in a work between the two of these, the lesser known The Fever Chart, that Wallace has embodied the idea of critical transnationality in artistic production.

In terms of content, The Fever Chart represents a true attempt to think across the fault lines of occupation in the Middle East. Consisting of three “visions,” the work has two short plays about Palestinian-Israeli relations, and one monologue by an Iraqi man about the devastation in his country. Thus, like In the Heart of America, it is a rare American work that juxtaposes Palestinian and Iraqi conditions of occupation. In fact, in this way its ideology—though not its representations of Israelis—stands much closer to theater found in the Arab world than North America, where Palestinian and Iraqi issues have historically been severed from one another. Perhaps this is why it is one of the few plays about the “war on terror” to have been performed in both Cairo and New York, as well as London. As such, the work, and the artist, who splits her time between America and Britain, and traveled to Egypt for the Cairo production, exemplifies the idea of a personalized transnational critique that knows the spaces in which those forgotten by occupation and globalization exist, and the production history of The Fever Chart demonstrates the challenges of trying to communicate such knowledge.

One of the visions in The Fever Chart, “Between This Breath and You,” tells the seemingly impossible story of an Israeli woman that has been given the lungs of a Palestinian youth killed by an Israeli soldier. However, though Wallace’s play speaks to a seemingly impossible coming together of her characters, the play was based on an actual event, as Nehad Selaiha noted in her review of the Cairo performance. In fact, The Guardian, whose story on the event was projected between segments of the Cairo production, quoted the Arab family involved as stating “that peace and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others was uppermost in their minds. But looking exhausted and still stunned by the twin demands of Ahmed’s death and the Israeli embrace, they also speak of their decision as an act of resistance.”15

Figure 1., Mourid (Basil Daoud) Sami (Hassan Kreidly), and Tanya (Amina Khalil) in Between this Breath and You at the AUC. Courtesy of Frank Bradley.
Figure 1., Mourid (Basil Daoud) Sami (Hassan Kreidly), and Tanya (Amina Khalil) in Between this Breath and You at the AUC. Courtesy of Frank Bradley.

In Wallace’s play, however, the seemingly impossible moves to another level, when the father (Mourid) of the dead boy (Ahmed) meets the woman (Tanya) who has his son’s lungs inside her in the waiting room of a clinic in West Jerusalem. There, Mourid mysteriously unravels details of Ahmed’s life beside what he knows of Tanya’s life, asking her, “How often do you stay behind to lock up? To play with the stethoscope? To talk with a patient after hours, pretending you can be of service?”16 Mourid then explains that Israeli soldiers had made his son clean dirt from their tanks with a broom because children had been throwing dirt. Then, they shot him in the back of the head and the pelvis, saying Ahmed had been carrying a gun.17

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