As co-editor with Palestinian playwright and poet, Samah Sabawi, of Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas, I appreciate Dr. Vacy Vlazna’s March 31st complimentary review in Palestine Chronicle of our groundbreaking anthology, but I feel compelled to address a thematic and character misrepresentation in her account of my play, Sperm Count.
I offer this clarification not as a personal criticism of Dr. Vlazna, an esteemed academic activist and editor in support of Palestine. I realize, as she acknowledges, that the reading of plays, especially by non-theatre-practitioners, sometimes misses thematic or character nuances that are apparent when actors deliver them onstage with emotional subtext often contrary to the literal meaning of their dialogue lines. Despite this, reading plays is a page-turning experience for most lovers of literature, because character conflict intensifies scene-by-scene from beginning to end.
Sperm Count, a dark-comedy drama featuring a Jewish Montreal family and their Palestinian doctor, depicts male infertility as a multi-layered metaphor; a sperm character, potentially conceived with a Palestinian egg, on a mission for lineage, satirical allegory of nationhood and the battle for statehood.
Dr. Vlazna was offended by what she describes as “the nazification of the one and only Palestinian character, Dr. Hamid,” particularly by allusions made to Nazi experimentation on Jews “in the dream image of Said wearing a traditional Arab robe with a swastika armband and a keffiyeh, (who) then waves goodbye with a Nazi salute.” This indeed is how the stage directions describe Said’s portrayal in that scene, but the reviewer’s judgmental reference is taken out of context. This is a nightmare scene depicting Said as a distorted figment of the Jewish husband David’s nightmare. London audiences at Sperm Count’s premiere run clearly realized this was not meant as an actual characterization of Said as a Palestinian Nazi.
On the contrary, in the context of the overall plot, this nightmare scene dramatically exposes metaphorically how Israeli propaganda uses the Holocaust to viscerally rationalize, especially among diaspora Jews, its oppressive occupation of Palestine. David’s nightmare challenges his self-professed liberal image as a supporter of Palestine and reveals his own latent racism long denied, fueled earlier by his wife Lena’s IVF failures at Said’s fertility clinic and ongoing anti-Arab diatribes by his estranged father, Jacob, a Holocaust survivor.
Dr. Vlazna takes issue with Jacob’s racist diatribes targeting Said’s genetic research and his mysterious visit to Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. But the heart of drama is delivered by characters forced to change or resist change through conflict; without it, drama is simply boring. How can a playwright depict authentically racist Jewish characters in conflict with Palestinians except through anti-Arab dialogue and action true to their dogmatic worldview?
Playwriting relies on the theatrical conventions of “set-up and pay-off” and “show don’t tell” to create compelling characters in a suspenseful plot structure, the salt and pepper of a great script. Negative character exposition early on sets up more powerfully their positive pay-off twists at the end…and vice versa for characters that initially hide their weak or detestable nature only to be later exposed. The true nature of characters is not revealed principally by what they say, but by the decisions they make under pressure; and it’s in the climax scene that pressure explodes revealing the essential heart of characters.
Dr. Vlazna correctly points out that David’s wife Lena supplants David as a hero character, which I intended. But I would maintain that at the end, it is Said who stands tallest among all characters on the moral high ground. The revelation of his brave treatment of Palestinian children in Kuwait during the height of the Persian Gulf War, his spirited integrity as a dedicated proud Palestinian doctor in the face of racist slurs, and his snap decision rushing from a family wedding to save Lena at the hospital are reasons, I sense, why Palestinians in the audiences complimented me on his character and the authenticity of his voice.
The job of a progressive dramatist is to deliver plays that promote peace and social justice delivered by characters in conflict true to their times, their place and their culture. My greatest challenge as a Jewish playwright tackling plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is creating with anecdotal accuracy authentic Palestinian characters free of stereotypical depiction; I suspect the same is true for most Palestinian playwrights creating Jewish characters. Cultural appropriation must be avoided, but if Jewish writers don’t dare to cross the cultural divide with diligence and mutual respect, we will fall short of our visionary goal.
I agree with Dr. Vlazna that writing a play about the refugee experience of Mrs. Hassan, who is merely alluded to in Sperm Count as an unseen Palestinian patient whose egg was mixed up at the fertility clinic, could make for powerful drama. Mrs. Hassan and her adopted Palestinian daughter, Hana, are central characters in my commissioned sequel, Birthmark, which Teesri Duniya Theatre, Canada’s most progressive political theatre company, plans to premiere.
I thank with deep respect Dr. Vlazna for her complimentary review of Double Exposure and especially for her ongoing work in support of Palestine. I hope her review and my commentary offer insight, however modestly, to the artistic and political complexity of dramatizing onstage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Stephen Orlov, April 1, 2017, Montreal.