nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
August 14, 2010
A violent, politically incorrect children's show in Gaza that teaches little ones about martyrdom? When I first heard about this play I thought it was a fictional comedy.
As demonstrated by the show's website, with articles from The New York Times and The Guardian and clips from CNN, the political organization Hamas has been broadcasting this very show, Tomorrow's Pioneers, for three years.
I was disturbed to walk into a theatre where the set is a long plastic children's floor mat with letters and numbers, exactly the same as the one my daughter has in our house. A young girl and a man in a rabbit costume make one of their many appearances to encourage Palestinian children to resist, and later to respect their great culture which has spawned so many poets, and later...to eat the Jews.
Meanwhile two friends who used to work together on the Israeli version of Sesame Street—Jake (an Israeli) and Hassan (a resident of Gaza)—talk on the phone. What was once a co-production between the Israeli TV show and the Palestinian version has fallen apart due to bad politics. In the U.S., you find Spanish speakers on Sesame Street who teach kids about other cultures. In Israel, there used to be Arabic speakers to teach kids how to get along with their neighbors. Shockingly, those characters were removed from the show because: why show something on TV that is not like reality / the parents will see the show and turn off the TV or complain to the station. The Palestinian show found itself in the same situation. Then, in 2007, Hamas started their aforementioned children's show.
Quentin, an American who ended up in Gaza to look for the grave of famous poet Mahmoud Darwish and other noble but "stupid" quests, is taken in by Hassan and then kindly escorted over to Israel where, alas, Hassan cannot go. We see how an American (even while pretending to be Canadian) is ignored by the waiter in a Palestinian cafe.
By the end of the play, the focus has shifted to the effect all this propaganda and violence is having on children. Additional episodes of Tomorrow's Pioneers (called something similar in this play and featuring slightly different animals) actually show the cuddly mascots "dying a martyr's death" while the TV studio is bombed, then the animals' relatives joining the cast so they can be part of the struggle. It is very poignant to see politics destroy bridges between (historically) friendly cultures and witness growing censorship of the media.
Playwright Samara Weiss is an American Jew. Program notes urge the audience to make contributions to charities which teach young Middle Eastern children about non-violent conflict resolution.
Matthew Michael Hurley as Jake and Adi Hanash as Hassan deliver great performances as friends separated by an ever-widening gulf. Mary de la Torre as child-host Salwa and Devin Bokaer as Nisr the Rabbit show how to make people despair.
After checking out the original Hamas broadcasts on YouTube, I congratulate set designer Brett Banakis and costume designer Beth Goldenberg for getting it all right. Jimmy Lawlor's lighting brings in the atmosphere of life in wartime.
Until I saw the original Hamas videos, I found some of Lucy Cashion's direction to be condescending and offensive. However, that's exactly what Hamas and its funders are doing by using TV to turn children into warriors. The first third of the play was difficult to sit through. After that, my mind was full of questions. So who are all these Palestinian poets who have enlightened civilization? If I didn't vote for G.W. Bush and he still invaded Iraq, how much responsibility does the average Israeli have for his government's actions? Would I feel the need to apologize to a Palestinian friend if his family is caught in the crossfire, as happens in the play? Are there really only 12 people on each side of this conflict who want to keep fighting...and will this change if toddlers are taught to be victims and martyrs?
Thought-provocation is one of the highest aims of theatre. Perhaps it would have been helpful to combat the Hamas propaganda with an Arab co-writer and some additional viewpoints in this play. The Oscar-nominated film Ajami pulls this off brilliantly. In any case, AK-47 Sing-Along opened my eyes to an unpleasant truth which I believe we must all examine.