“It’s What We Do” … Well-Acted, Artful Pandering

IWWD_01Right now in Washington DC., the splendid Tenth Anniversary Capital Fringe Festival is unfolding. (Applause!)

We Festival-Goers including Yours Truly can partake of over 120 performances, the creative work of mostly local and regional playwrights, dance companies, “craft” theater groups, musicians, and comedians, brought together by a committed band of volunteers and a tiny core management team led by the visionary, energetic and talented Julianne Brienza, Capital Fringe’s CEO whose real title should include the words “Tenacious Creative Force”.

Brienza & Co. are to be greatly admired, as are the Festival’s hundreds of creators and performers who have worked so long and so hard to bring us their inspiration … so that we may see, appreciate, and ponder in wonderment.

As in all human endeavor, some of these 120+ labors of love will be judged more successful than others, whether measured by how many seats are filled, media reviews including the web … or by audience members’ own biases. Including mine.

In this inevitable maelstrom of opinion, my general bias favoring those who run the risk of proposing solutions rather than merely artfully presenting problems came strongly into play at one of the Festival’s most anticipated performances, “It’s What We Do”, which premiered on a July 12 Sunday afternoon before an audience primed by local media to have high expectations.

Very high expectations.

Anchored in a dialogue drawn verbatim from “Our Harsh Logic”, a book chronicling the thoughts and words of Israeli soldiers shaken by witnessing … and often participating in … brutal acts terribly dehumanizing to Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, “It’s What We Do” — IWWD — had been billed as an accurate rendering of what ought not to be happening, but is, in that shaken land.

Through monologue and movement while being “interrogated” by the stirring if ne’er to be seen offstage “Voice” of Dior Ashley Brown, three remarkable on-stage actors, Olivia Haller, Tariq Triano, and Keanu Ross-Cabrera, took on the life form of three Israeli soldiers reliving often traumatic personal confrontations with, and sometimes pitiless ill-treatment of, West Bank Palestinians.

The actors’ verbal and visual portrayals in truth were not just three people’s personal wartime stories and instead a mélange of many more Israeli army veterans’ sometimes awful memories. Each had been terribly dismayed, scarred by what he or she saw and did while serving in the West Bank, and each has shown extraordinary courage to put his or her name next to words meant to stir our consciousness and conscience.

In their turn, other IWWD players, older, not so old, and two young children, became the Palestinians of one moment or other of disheartening suffering, their compelling stage artistry empowering us to see and feel the agony of real people unceasingly on the short end of an Israeli military stick … or rifle … or explosive charge set to destroy their houses.

So well-acted! Yet so poorly portrayed.

With a startling self-righteousness borne of the same “stuff” that they were condemning, the piece’s authors and engineers — if not the actors themselves — betrayed not only in the play itself but in their after-show commentary that they, too, were driven by the very same coarse single-sided condemnatory intolerance that IWWD was apparently meant to single out and condemn.

Playwright Pamela Nice was embarrassingly explicit explaining why IWWD was not meant to be balanced; time constraints of the Capital Fringe rules of the road, she claimed, made it very hard to share any and every West Bank nuance in the allotted 60 minutes or so.

True perhaps as far as it goes, but a half-truth never goes very far at all. Ms. Nice and too many more of her after-the-show panelists were blatantly sidestepping the truth of how facilely her play expediently aped the hard work of people much more courageous and creative than they were.

I refer to the real Israeli soldiers themselves, people whose agonizing confessions appear in the “Our Harsh Logic” sourcebook, people whose names we never learn but whose words the playwright has plagiarized verbatim to her own end.

And to what end exactly was that? Alas, left unspoken either in the play or the after-show commentary was any real confirmation of “intent”. For sure, the playwright and a few panelists gave lip service to the goal that IWWD was intended to graphically present certain scenes and scenarios so that we in the audience might ourselves better understand the meanness and worse that Palestinians too often suffer in the West Bank. And elsewhere.

Isn’t that enough “intent” for me? No, it is not. Nor for you, either.

For, their nominal but intentionally self-aggrandizing “intent” to broaden the audience’s understanding actually betrayed an almost Hitleresque hidden agenda. For, the playwright’s core conspicuous mission was and is to make people angry, in a hackneyed bombastic attempt to shake us out of apparent complacency and motivate us into thought and action … but action towards achieving what?

Alas, the play and playwright leave us guessing not only at the “what” but also at the “what for?”

Perhaps the “what” is an end to persecution of Palestinians by Jordanians, Saudis … oops, I guess IWWD meant to single out just the Israelis. But how to get there?

Or maybe it’s Israel quitting the West Bank? But how to make THAT happen? Or maybe a Palestinian state would solve everything? But how?

How about a boycott of Israeli intellectuals, a banner under which some university campuses in England are keen to gather. Or disinvestment in Israeli companies, how about that? Or maybe it’s the Iran-Hezbollah formula, plainly and simply eradicating Israel altogether along with all those pesky Jews. Or maybe this … or maybe that … or … or … maybe what?

Therein lies IWWD’s compound failure, poorly portraying, and on someone else’s dime (the actual soldiers’) little more than worn re-runs of “here’s-the-problem-but-don’t-ask-ME-for-solutions” stories that we already too painfully know, stories anchored in other people’s suffering, not our own, stories about people far enough away from where we are so that we can look good when artfully portraying their pain … without ever getting our hands calloused actually doing something on the ground to ameliorate their pathos.

For that matter, exactly what is it that IWWD allows us to discover that we didn’t know before? What does the play present that might give us new insight into whose version of unfairness is better or worse than someone else’s?

What are we seeing in IWWD if not Srebrenica or Cambodia or My Lai or Kristallnacht or the 1968 Chicago Convention or Kent State or Trevon Martin or the Stonewall Riots or the Armenian genocide or the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Eric Garner or Canada’s atrocious Resettlement Schools that thrived right into the 1970’s?

What is there in IWWD that is not in Watts 1992 or Baltimore 2015 or the Taliban closing down girls’ schools or the fate of the Ephrussi family (and a few million others of their kith and kin) or ISIS’s murder and enslavement of the Yasidi people or Babi Yar or the smug presumptuousness of 19th and early 20th century Christian missionaries to Africa or China?

Exactly how far do artists and writers and playwrights and cineastes want to travel down the supposed noble road towards “peace and justice” by consciously opting to stoke the fires of hatred and intolerance of supposedly hateful and intolerant people … all while leaving the heavy lifting and dirty work of real solutions to someone else?

It takes no guts and deserves no glory to stoke ANY flames of intolerance by finger-pointing. It takes no guts and deserves no glory for anyone — in this case the play’s authors and backers — to hang on the coattails of other peoples’ bravery and tragedy, in this case not only the Palestinians’ but also the very Israeli soldiers who daily run the existential risk of working in the very home crowd of people many of whom are too often quite keen to single them out as evil incarnate.

It’s What We Do? IT’S WHAT WE DO? Riding on other people’s coattails is what IWWD does. No less, and no more. Pandering, whether artful presented or not, is exactly that, and “Pandering is What IWWD Does”. Superbly well-acted pandering.

How many of those 60 minutes — two? three? — would it have taken to direct the audience towards a notion of WHY these solders took and take such pain to lay down such personal markers? Maybe a hint of HOW they decided to open themselves up to the praise or scorn of some of their own countrymen … including criticism not much different than that offered up by today’s caustic hangers-on to the Confederate battle flag.

Too bad that this play instead was and is so, so predictable. Too bad it merely centered on showing what people do that they should not do. Too bad we never find out where and why the real authors of this play, the very soldiers themselves, came to believe there is a better way.

Too bad that instead we are left to watch a somewhat smug, somewhat self-righteous group of hangers-on — not the actors and instead the authors and engineers of this folly — figurative flaunt their “We Want Peace” banner when, with a bit of thoughtfulness, they could have taken themselves — and us — way beyond the bounds of pandering and instead brought forth an extraordinarily breathtaking piece.

“Let’s make ourselves look good by showing how bad the other guy is.” What a tread-worn way of story-telling. What a god-awful sameness to no good end.

Perhaps it was just too much effort for the creators to reach high for the excellence this play could have brought forth; perhaps that would have required making the “bad guys” — once again, the play’s REAL authors — look good for what they were trying to achieve … and still are.

Unity in effort despite intractable differences leads to remarkable solutions so long as there is a shared a vision of peacefully addressing conflicts. We are at our best when we stay at THAT table and do not try to split one another apart.

The four operative words in that sentence are “share”, “peacefully”, and “split apart”. We “share” nothing and certainly disgrace and distance ourselves ever further from “peacefully” resolving anything, certainly not in an hour-long play no matter how well-acted, that is intentionally choreographed to “split apart” peoples by proving how good and righteous we are because the other guys are so, so, bad.

Alas, it apparently did not fit in “It’s What We Do” to make any Israeli look good. Or in the startling commentary by one of the play’s backers that “they” (literally lumping all Israelis together) simply are incapable of seeing Israeli persecution for what he believes it really is. Better in his mind that we split “those” bad guy Israelis apart from the rest of us. Just like Jew bashers demand or the people who declare and demand that the only good Arab or Muslim or Palestinian is a dead one.

Pedestrian divisive pandering.

But am I glad to have seen IWWD? You bet! For, I have come away more sensitive than ever to the difference between bombast, IWWD-style, and the thoughtfulness that it really takes to solve real problems.