Alternative Transnationals: Naomi Wallace and Cross-Cultural Performances

However, it is not in the West alone that this conversation has met challenges. When The Fever Chart was first performed at the American University in Cairo, as Wallace and director Frank Bradley took the stage for the post-show Q&A, four of the actors in the play came to the front of the stage and rejected the play for, as they saw it, equating the oppressor with the oppressed and creating lives in a vacuum, finally stating “no coexistence without preceding existence.”38 Interestingly, the critical responses to the performance took a decidedly different tone. Joseph Fahim stated, “The four actors’ statement and the criticism Wallace was bombarded with reflects an intolerance for any work that portrays the ‘enemy’ in a non-barbaric light. The Israeli characters never appear sympathetic, and that’s one of the very few dramatic flaws of the play. Wallace doesn’t offer any kind of resolution, or ‘reconciliation,’ for her characters, which renders the actors’ statement all the more puzzling.”39 Meanwhile, Nehad Selaiha noted, “That some of the audience found it hard to swallow such a message is, perhaps, understandable and could be predicted. One wonders if there ever will come a time when such brave plays would be properly appreciated . . . They [Wallace, Bradley, and the AUC] gave me a taste of real political theatre as I understand it: challenging, disorienting and thought provoking.”40 It would also seem strange that, given the AUC’s upper-class demographic, the students did not have a problem with their university training the heirs to Egypt’s political and economic elite who remain complicit in the occupation.

Ironically, though, equating the roles of occupier and occupied is how the one published Western critical response to Wallace’s play positions the work. In the article, “Enough! Women Playwrights Confront the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Amelia Howe Kritzer surveys female responses to Israeli occupation in the wake of the controversy over Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, and positions The Fever Chart as an alternative to “the tone of anger and impatience common to other plays about the conflict.”41 For Kritzer, the majority of plays about Palestine create a “pattern of emphasizing the viewpoint and experience of one side [that] limits their potential for bridging the deep divisions between Palestinians and Israelis,” while Wallace’s work “feature[s] a trio of characters, a choice that undermines the either/or pattern of the binary opposition between Palestinian and Israeli positions.”42 While I agree that Wallace’s work contains an uncommonly humanistic approach to the issue, assuming that Wallace does not take sides requires Kritzer to consistently erase Arab subject positions in her analysis. Thus, she does not note the disproportionate number of dead Palestinians versus dead Israelis, including two Palestinian children, in Wallace’s play, an imbalance that mirrors the actual occupation. Additionally, by focusing on Palestine and ignoring the Iraqi segment, Kritzer avoids Wallace’s implication of the structural and American-funded nature of violence and occupation in the Middle East, an erasure amplified by her consistent references to “conflict,” rather than the more accurate and specific terms “occupation,” “apartheid,” and “settler-colonialism.”43 Finally, she writes of British and American productions of Wallace’s work, ignoring that it played in Cairo before New York and ignoring the different resonances in the productions. In this way, she creates an argument for a “balanced” understanding of the “conflict” that obscures the reality of Wallace’s writing, how it has been performed, and Palestinian life under occupation.

Instead of replicating similar rhetorical choices, The Fever Chart always maintains a clear structure of understanding the difference between occupier and occupied, while, at the same time, showing the intimate connections between human beings on either side of that line. True, this may be hard for many to view, but, at the same time, it is impossible to end oppressive political and economic structures without understanding that the ideological failures that create them are human. Just as suffering should not be disembodied, neither should the structures that create oppression. They are equally human, and must be understood as such. And this humanity must be understood in dialogues that move across borders both ideologically and physically.

At one point in “Between This Breath and You,” Mourid tells Tanya, “Did you know, Tanya—may I call you Tanya?—that wind has no sound? What makes the sound are the things it touches—branch, cliff, roof. All that rushing is the contact between one thing and another. Without that meeting point between two worlds, the harshest wind is silent.”44 So too are abstract forms of political resistance, those that do not understand the intimate details of the lives they mean to help, equally voiceless. True, in the contact that creates voice, there is friction, and there are moments of tension. However, in the silencings of the Guthrie, of state and public censorship, of those who would not see those whom they oppose (or, in some cases, support) as human, there is also no chance for progress, for a better means of living together. It is only when transnational humanism risks the pain of intimacy and the burns of friction that it will have a voice, a hope, and a possibility for a better world.

George Potter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Valparaiso University. His research focuses on visual culture and national narratives in Jordan. A United States Fulbright grant and a Taft Dissertation Fellowship from the University of Cincinnati funded his study of theater about the “war on terror” in Cairo, London, and New York. His research and translations have appeared in a number of journals and edited collections, including Arizona Quarterly and Proteus: A Journal of Ideas

[1] Kia Corthron, et. al., “On the Road to Palestine,” American Theatre (July/August 2003), 31.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 71.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, eds., Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 2.
[6] Qtd. in James M. Harding and John Rouse, eds., Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundation of Avant-Garde Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 31.
[7] Ezra and Rowden, Transnational Cinema, 2.
[8] Harding and Rouse, Not the Other Avant-Garde, 15.
[9] Marvin Carlson, “Avant Garde Drama in the Middle East,” in ibid., 125-44.
[10]Yan Haiping. “Other Transnationals: An Introductory Essay,” Modern Drama 48, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 226.
[11] Stephen Moss, “The Container’s Captive Audience,” The Guardian 7 July 2009.
[12] Sara L. Warner, “Suzan-Lori Parks’s Drama of Disinternment: A Transnational Exploration of Venus,” Theatre Journal 60, no. 2 (May 2008):181.
[13] Jerry Wasserman, “Bombing (on) the Border: Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil as Transnational Agitprop,” Modern Drama 51, no.1 (Spring 2008): 126-44.
[14] Naomi Wallace, “On Writing as Transgression,” American Theatre (January 2008), 100.
[15] Qtd. in Nehad Selaiha. “Politics Centre-Stage,” Al-Ahram Weekly (20 Mar. 2008), (accessed 5 May 2010).
[16] Naomi Wallace, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East (New York: TCG, 2009), 37.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 45.
[19] Ibid., 46.
[20] Ibid., 50.
[21] Ibid., 52-3.
[22] A brief and accessible overview of the conditions in occupied Palestine can be found in the film Occupation 101 (Dir. Omeish, Abdallah, and Sufyan Omeish, DVD, YouTube, and Vimeo).
[23] Similarly, Ali Abunimah has noted that economic exploitation was built into the Oslo process, which allows Israel to control Palestinian imports and exports and divert development into international industrial zones that export the profit. See Ali Abunimah, “Economic Exploitation of Palestinians Flourishes under Occupation,” Al-Jazeera English 13 September 2012,, (accessed 8 February 2014).
[24] Wallace, Fever, 58.
[25] Ibid., 61.
[26] Ibid., 64.
[27] “In 1989, school enrollment in Iraq was higher than the average rate for all developing countries.” (PBS. “Iraq—Truth and Lies in Baghdad. Facts and Stats,” Frontline World (November 2002),, (accessed 3 September 2010).
[28] Ibid.
[29] Wallace, Fever, 66.
[30] Ibid., 62.
[31] Ibid., 67.
[32] Ibid., 68.
[33] Ibid., 9.
[34] Ibid., 23.
[35] Wallace, “On Writing,” 102.
[36] The production would eventually be staged at Fordham University, instead of the Guthrie. Qtd. in Claire MacDonald, “Intimate Histories,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Arts 28, no. 3 (2006): 100.
[37] John Nathan. “Review: The Fever Chart,” Rev., The Fever Chart, 18 March 2010, The Jewish Chronicle Online,, (accessed 5 May 2010).
[38] Frank Bradley, dir. The Fever Chart, writ. Naomi Wallace, perf. Falaki Theatre, American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, 17 March 2008, Undistributed DVD. Also Personal Interview, 26 October 2008.
[39] Joseph Fahim, “Visions of War, Loss and Humanity,” The Daily News Egypt (17 March 2008), (accessed 5 May 2010).
[40] Selaiha, “Politics Centre-Stage.”
[41] Amelia Howe Kritzer, “Enough! Women Playwrights Confront the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Theatre Journal 62, no. 4 (December 2010): 624.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Part 2, Article 7, of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) defines apartheid as inhumane acts of a character similar to crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Even a cursory knowledge of the Israeli occupation would make clear that this is a more appropriate term than “conflict,” which implies a balanced struggle. See “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” United Nations, 2002, (accessed 7 August 2013).
[44] Wallace, Fever, 34.

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