On January 13th, hundreds of artists and cultural workers marched through New York City’s theater district in solidarity with The Freedom Theatre of Jenin, Palestine which was raided one month earlier, on December 13th, by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The group stopped in front of several Broadway theaters and in Times Square for performances by Palestinian artists and allies including excerpts from The Freedom Theatre’s The Revolution’s Promise and ASHTAR Theatre’s The Gaza Monologues. The demands of the “Cultural Resistance March” (as it was publicized on social media) included the release of Freedom Theatre Producing Director Mustafa Sheta, and Chair of the Board Bilal Al-Sadi, as well as an end to the targeting of Palestinian artists, journalists, and cultural institutions. The protest also uplifted the demands of Palestinian Youth Movement: immediate and permanent ceasefire, lift the siege on Gaza, free all prisoners, end the occupation, and end US aid to Israel.
One of the readings of the night, The Story of the Freedom Theatre Jenin Refugee Camp 2011 read by Monica Dudárov Hunken, came from Freedom Theatre co-founder and former artistic director (before he was assassination in front of The Freedom Theater that same year) Juliano Mer Khamis. The piece described his dream of the theater as “a major force in generating cultural resistance, creating a political and artistic movement that raises its voice against discrimination.” True to this mission, the theater has been a cultural center since 2006 that has staged professional theater productions, held workshops, offered training in acting, pedagogy, and photography, as well as published books, exhibitions and short films.
The December 13th raid left the theater ravaged with walls defaced and materials destroyed, but it was only the latest act in a pattern of the IDF targeting The Freedom Theater and other cultural institutions. As 23 year old Chantal Rizkalla put it in Notes on Suffocation, another of the pieces from the march (this one read by Natalia de Campos), “The Freedom Theatre stands as a beacon of Palestinian Resistance and cultural expression. Its attack reverberates beyond its walls, symbolizing a larger threat to our right to express our Palestinian ancestry, histories and stories through arts.” For those involved in The Freedom Theater, art is not a diversion from resistance, but plays a critical role in the fight for liberation. As described on their website, “Everything we do in The Freedom Theatre contains an element of play. Through play, we can deconstruct an oppressive reality and make it comprehensible, which is the first step towards changing it.”
The Cultural Resistance march brought that same militantly playful spirit to Theater Row with interactive dance led by Jenny Romaine and Al Límite Collective, music by Brooklyn Nomads, and Resistance Revival Choir, tissue paper poppies, and doves with tinsel tails. Dramatic white kites bore defiant messages like, “Art is a Weapon”, “Defend Storytellers”, and “Free Them All”. While speeches included grief and rage at the tens of thousands of Palestinian lives lost in the past three months, the organizers also created a space to celebrate the beauty of Palestinian culture, art, resistance, and life.
Other performances included Amel Khalil opening the evening at Bryant Park with Hiba Abu Nada’s October 2023 poem I Grant You Refuge (translated by Huda Fakhreddine) and accompanied by Anikaya Dance company, Ali Dineen’s stirring rendition of Masters of War by Bob Dylan, pointedly performed outside The Town Hall where a tribute to Bob Dylan recently took place, and Najla Said (daughter of Palestinian-American intellectual and cultural critic Edward Said) delivering one of the Gaza Monologues by Amanee A Shorafa translated by Fida Jiryis.
The rally was sponsored by Noor Theater, National Queer Theater, Friends of Freedom Theater, Al Límite Collective, Queers for a Liberated Palestine, Writers Against the War in Gaza, and Theater of the Oppressed NYC. Equal parts inventively theatrical political action and innovatively political theater piece, the evening was above all a call to action where theater makers spoke directly to each other and to theater audiences about the power of art for change. As Palestinian musical theater writer Fouad Dakwar put it in a call and response with the audience on the steps of the New York Public Library, “The violent status quo fears the artists. The genocidal regime fears the artists. And we, the artists, must fear nothing.” And as 21 year old Aya Samara of Youth Against Invasion put it in Dreams on a Waiting List, read on January 13th by Manatsu Tanaka and Keri Egilmez, “For the sake of Palestine; we create, write, draw, act, sing, and witness.”
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Morgan Skolnik.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.