Freedom Theatre's new play, "The Island"

The Island - political drama at its bestthe-island

“They made me laugh, they made me cry! I have never seen the prisoner's issue addressed through art in such wonderful, sensitive, emotional and strong way.” Majd Beltaji, audience member

The Freedom Theatre’s latest production The Island opened to a packed house on Thursday, March 7, 2013 in Jenin Refugee Camp.

The Deputy Minister of Prisons from the Jenin PA came to see the play and brought a group of former political prisoners and their families to the opening. One of the former prisoners had been in prison for 27 years.

The Island is a South African apartheid-era drama that takes place in a prison and revolves around two cellmates: Mukhtar and Imam, who spend their days at mind-numbing physical labour and at night rehearse for a performance of Sophocles' Antigone.

The Freedom Theatre’s adaptation of The Island reflects the experiences of Palestinian political prisoners and the abuses within the Israeli prison system. The play also highlights the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Palestine today.

The Island is directed by The Freedom Theatre's Artistic Director Gary M. English who is also a Professor of Drama at the University of Connecticut in the United States: "The Island is political drama at its best with political ideas embedded within the characters and their experience. It is universal in its themes - including the tragedy of those who anyway in the world are unjustly imprisoned for purely political reasons, beliefs or for simply speaking out against injustice."

During the climatic scene when Muhktar says, "How do I count my days, 1, another day comes, 1, another day comes...” the audience and particularly the former prisoners broke into applause.

Theatre that matters is alive and well in Jenin. The free performances of The Island continue through Wednesday, March 13. The play will tour Sweden, Norway, Brazil and the US later this year.

The Freedom Theatre dedicates this play to Samer Issawi and all other Palestinian political prisoners.

Read more about The Island on The Freedom Theatre's website.

"Sarah's War" press release (extended!)

CONTACT PHILIP SOKOLOFFPublicity for the theatre 626.683-9205 e-mail:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                            March 14, 2012


WHAT: “Sarah’s War.” World Premiere engagement of a new play.

WHO: Written by Valerie Dillman. Directed by Matt McKenzie. Produced by Jordan Elgrably for Freedom Theatre West. Executive producer: Amani Jabsheh.

WHERE: Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038.

WHEN: NOW through April 15, 2012.  Fri/Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m.

ADMISSION: Regular performances- $30 preferred, $25 general. RESERVATIONS: 310.657-5511. ONLINE TICKETING:

* * * * * *

L.A. Weekly Pick of the Week. Back Stage Critic’s Pick.

“Sarah’s War” is a fictional look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, inspired by the real-life experiences of the late American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza on March 16, 2003. Corrie is viewed as an icon in the peace movement and is considered a martyr to many in the Arab world. “Sarah’s War,” however, includes Palestinian, Israeli and American perspectives, revealing humanity on all sides.

“Refusing to frame the conflict in terms of heroes and villains,” writes Philip Brandes in the Los Angeles Times, “Dillman's play reminds us that although it's easy to pass judgment from halfway around the world, understanding is much harder to come by.”

Sarah is an idealistic 23-year-old American woman who decides to join members of the International Solidarity Movement in Palestinian Territories under Israeli military occupation, much to the consternation of her Jewish uncle, to whom she initially appeals for support. He doesn’t want her to potentially put herself in harm’s way. It’s pointed out to her that there are plenty of worthwhile things that need to be done right in her own backyard.

It’s rough going for her once she arrives in the Middle East. There are Arabs who suspect her of being a spy, while some Israelis regard her as a terrorist sympathizer. But she sees herself as a peace activist and is determined to remain.

“Sarah’s War” has a mixed cast of Arabs, Jews and mainstream American actors, yet the play focuses less on the bulldozer incident and more on the effect Sarah’s decisions and her death have on her family members.

During its initial 6-week run, the role of “Sarah” has been performed by Abica Dubay.  In its 4-week extension, Halle Hirsh takes over the role of “Sarah,” while Kate Mines fills the role of "Caitlin" previously played by Marley McClean.

Valerie Dillman is the playwright. A co-founder of the Pacific Resident Theatre’s writers group, her previous plays include “Hedda Lives” and “First Lady.” She also wrote and directed a short film, “Fascinating,” and is working on a web series, “Wake Up, America!,” which takes a satirical look at the morning news.

Matt McKenzie directs “Sarah’s War.” He previously directed “The Time of Your Life” at Pacific Resident Theatre. He has worked at theatres around the country as a fight choreographer.  Also an actor, he’s appeared in theatres across the country. He performed in recurring roles on the hit TV series “Mad Men” and “24,” and portrayed Colin Clive in the feature film “Gods and Monsters.”

The cast of “Sarah’s War” includes, in alphabetical order, Adria Tennor Blotta, Ann Bronston, Terry Davis, Avner Garbi, Lindsey Ginter, Will Green, Halle Hirsh, Kate Mines, Will Rothaar, Ayman Samman, Dina Simon and Allan Wasserman. Understudies include Michael Hanson, Ryan Martin, Amro Salama and Susan Wilder.

Co-producer: Sheana Ochoa. Production stage manager: Crystal Magallanes, assistant stage manager Tamer Batayneh. Projections: Keith Stevenson. Lighting design: William Wilday. Sound design: Alex Enberg. Costume design: Cara Giannini.

Producer Jordan Elgrably is the founding director of Levantine Cultural Center, which celebrates the diverse cultures of the Middle East and North Africa by presenting arts and educational programs that bridge political and religious divides.

“Sarah’s War” is the inaugural production of Freedom Theatre West, the first theatre company in Southern California to focus on the Middle East and North Africa. As Elgrably notes, “Freedom Theatre West seeks to present plays and represent artists from Israel to Iran—something that is not only not done anywhere else, but is considered impossible by most people.”

Curvwire, ***1/2 out of 4

Sarah's War: Death of a Dream

Posted by Robyn McGee on March 6, 2012 - 9:20am

Unpacking a parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child, Sarah’s mother, Ann (Terry Davis) meticulously arranges the bloody jeans and blouse as if trying to piece together how her daughter went from a carefree co-ed to being crushed to death under a bulldozer’s blade a world away.

Sarah’s War presented by Freedom Theatre West is based on the true story of Rachel Corrie, a peace activist who was reportedly killed while trying to stop house demolitions on the Gaza Strip in 2003. It is a riveting tale of young idealism and naiveté buried under the weight of steadfast righteousness and never ending war. Sarah (Abica Dubay) eschews her family hopes of becoming a doctor to pursue a dream greater than herself-to become a human shield in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Sarah announces to her nonplussed Uncle Don (Alan Wasserman) “I am going to Palestine” she does so with the zeal of a child asking for money to go to Disneyland.

Sarah’s passing pierces her family’s orderly façade as those close to her seek to find meaning and to lay blame. Uncle Don’s I-told- you-so wife Linda (Ann Bronston) asks all the logical questions, what was a nice girl like Sarah doing thousands of miles away in war zone? Sarah’s sister (Adria Tennor Blotta) wears her resentment like a hijab, furious her own pregnancy is being upstaged by her sister’s death and Sarah’s father Neil (Lindsey Ginter) is a vacuous cell of a man who treats the loss of his daughter like a bad joke he doesn’t quite get. Playwright Valerie Dillman’s script is steady and revelatory as the narrative ricochets between Sarah’s family back home and her brief and harrowing time in Gaza.

Throughout the play, Davis (in a dual role as the American mother and Palestine grandmother Zakayah) is the emotional courier. Her pain and confusion is always on the brim. Watching Ann try to bring rationality to her grief by planning a trip of her own to see for herself, when, why and how her daughter’s dream was destroyed is both restrained and heartbreaking.

Other standouts in the cast are Noora (Dina Simon) Sarah’s unwelcoming host, a “ghost” who eventually picks up Sarah’s challenge to write her own story. Caitlin (Marley McClean) Sarah’s comrade who lives to tell of Sarah’s tragic end and soldier Avi (Will Green) whose fatal meeting with Sarah imagines what might have been. Sarah’s War thrives under the brisk director of Matt McKenzie.

Playing now through March 18, 2012 at the Hudson Theatre 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90038. (***1/2 out of 4 stars).

Don Shirley on another version of the Rachel Corrie story

When the Talkback Tops the Play. Crichton, Anyone?

News by Don Shirley  |  September 12, 2011
Samara Frame in "My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Last Thursday, a post-play panel discussion and audience talkback were much more exciting than the play that was being discussed.

After writing a feature article about My Name Is Rachel Corrie, I couldn’t make the Sept. 1 opening at the Theatricum Botanicum, because I was out of town. So upon my return, I saw the second performance on the first night after I returned – and the verbal fireworks that followed the show itself.

Susan Angelo’s staging, featuring Samara Frame as Rachel Corrie, is a capable production of an extremely limited and frustrating play. To recap for those who haven’t heard, it’s a solo about the young Corrie, an American who died in Gaza in 2003, while volunteering for a group that was trying to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli military operations – which in turn were triggered by Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.

The script, compiled by British journalist Katharine Viner and actor Alan Rickman, using Corrie’s journals and emails, is remarkably Westerner-centric. It’s downright myopic in its attention only to this one American stranger in a strange land, rather than the people who are living through the conflict that surrounded her.

The play became controversial because it reflects Corrie’s largely one-sided sympathy for a Palestinian perspective, with hardly any reference at all to any Israeli perspective. But in fact not even the Palestinians speak for themselves here; they speak only indirectly, through their largely untutored American proxy.

Producers and other defenders of the play say its intent was not to dramatize the conflict between the larger warring groups. It was intended as a depiction of a young idealist who admits that she doesn’t know as much as she should – but who at least is trying to become involved in something bigger than the concerns of most Americans.

OK, that’s nice, I guess. But like most solo shows with endings we know in advance, My Name is Rachel Corrie isn’t especially dramatic. And it isn’t very original. If we were to count the number of plays about young American idealists that have been produced in the US, compared to the number of plays about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, I’m quite confident that the former would far outnumber the latter. Yet the latter subject is more obviously dramatic.

Gene Robbins, Jordan Elgrably and Steve Goldberg on the panel discussion following last week's performance of "My Name is Rachel Corrie", Photo by Sheana Ochoa, Levantine Cultural Center

Still, because of its setting, and because the play became unduly famous after its US premiere in 2006 was postponed amid a storm of controversy, Rachel Corrie raises false expectations that it has something serious to say about the Middle Eastern conflict.

Fortunately, that created the right conditions for panel discussions and audience talkbacks that are more rousing than the play itself – and, to the credit of the Theatricum Botanicum, that’s exactly what happened last Thursday.

After an introduction by Theatricum board member and actor Alan Blumenfeld, the assault on the play began from panelist Steve Goldberg, national vice chairman of the Zionist Organization of America. He said Corrie was “exploited after her death…to serve a propaganda purpose – propaganda to the point of political pornography.” He held her parents responsible – “She should have been pulled out [of Gaza]. They allowed this to happen.” Later he commented that if Mexico sent as many missiles into California as Hamas did into Israel, from Gaza, “we would turn Mexico into a parking lot.”

His chastising of Corrie’s parents was the cue for Corrie’s uncle by marriage, Gene Robbins, to rise out of the audience for a rebuttal – and for establishing his own credentials that he is Jewish and “grew up in a Zionist family.” Corrie was “an intelligent person,” he said. “She wasn’t exploited. There was no terrorist” in the house she was trying to protect from a bulldozer before she was killed. “It’s difficult for us to hear criticism of Israel, but we have to go back to international law…What Israel has been doing has been violating international law.”

This would soon lead to an exchange with audience member Harold Samuels, who later identified himself as having opened the Zionist Organization’s office in LA and having been a former director of development at the Anti-Defamation League. He angrily challenged Robbins’ interpretation of international law.

Other than Goldberg, the only actual panelist was Jordan Elgrably, executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center, who identified himself as “an Arab Jew.” He rejected Goldstein’s charge of “propaganda”, saying that the word applies to what governments or corporations do, not to what artists do. “Rachel Corrie doesn’t represent the…Palestinians per se.”

Samara Frame

One woman who identified herself as being Palestinian spoke up from the audience. She said she had spent the first half of her life in the Palestinian Territories and the second half in the US.  She said that she was confident that if Corrie had been around during the Nazi era, she would have sacrificed her life to defend victims of the Nazis.

Among the audience members who spoke, without naming themselves, was a self-identified “anarchist” who pointed out that we were on land that once belonged to the Chumash (I wasn’t sure if this was intended as a point for Israel or the Palestinians or neither).

Another man noted that large crowds of Israelis recently demonstrated against their own government over economic issues, that LA might have a supermarket strike soon, and that “what we really need is to unite as a class against our common enemy.”

Peter Alsop, who’s married to Theatricum Botanicum artistic director Ellen Geer, observed that “as a flaming liberal, I realize that I put no thought at all into ‘how do we stop people from bombing the cafes in Israel’?”

The Zionist Organization’s Goldberg at one point challenged Theatricum officials to justify their programming of Rachel Corrie by asking, rhetorically, “Would you put on a blackface show here for the purpose of debate?”

Earnestine Phillips, an active African American member of the Theatricum company, responded from the audience. In fact, she said, the Theatricum is considering doing an original adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a historically important book that some African Americans have interpreted as a troubling example of “blackface” style.

Samara Frame

Geer herself largely watched the proceedings silently, but at one point she approached the fervently passionate Goldberg, so that she was looking into his face with only a few inches between them. Because her back was to the audience, I couldn’t see what she was doing at that moment, so later I asked her. “I wanted to see his eyes,” she replied, “so he would calm down.” I wasn’t able to ask Goldberg later whether her technique had worked.

Geer did, however, speak to the group at the end, noting that “controversy is a good thing. It helps you thrive.” I can’t say that the discussion was all that illuminating, but at least it was animated, with conflict crackling from stage to audience and back again – the sort of exchange that can happen in contentious plays but didn’t happen in Rachel Corrie itself.

I’m not sure that it will happen at the remaining panel discussions. The list of official panelists that was inserted into the programs last Thursday didn’t include anyone who was as likely to dispute the ideology behind the play as much as Goldberg did last Thursday. However, the list was “subject to change,” according to the insert, and of course challenging questions and comments might come from audience members, too.

At any rate, I applaud the Theatricum for holding at least one politically charged talkback. And may I suggest that the Theatricum might want to consider a play that provides a more substantive viewpoint of what’s happening in the Middle East than can be found in Rachel Corrie. For example, Goliath, by Karen Hartman, which I saw at the Open Fist’s new play festival in the summer of 2009, is about Israelis and Palestinians themselves, as opposed to visiting Americans, and it’s also remarkably open-minded and even-handed. I’m sure there are other examples, if the Theatricum looks far enough.

My Name is Rachel Corrie and audience talkbacks, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Thursday through Sept. 22, plus Wednesday Sept. 21, 8 pm. 310-455-3723.

Israelis and Palestinians on Stage, Don Shirley for LA Stage Times

ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS ON STAGE: In LA, we don’t see many plays about Israel, the Palestinian Territories or their dispute. Some readers may recall my disappointment that one of the few plays we have seen recently on this subject is the slight, superficial, one-sided and American-centric solo show My Name is Rachel Corrie, which the Theatricum Botanicum produced last summer.

Now, however, we are blessed with Valerie Dillman’s Sarah’s War, a new play that fictionalizes the same Rachel Corrie story (Rachel becomes “Sarah”) but presents it from the viewpoint of many more people.

The list includes Sarah (Abica Dubay), of course, and introduces us to her fellow volunteers for the International Solidarity Movement. One of them in particular (Marley McClean), while sharing Sarah’s opinions, treats her with some disdain. We briefly meet the Palestinians Sarah thinks she is defending – but even they (especially a young woman played by Dina Simon) have mixed feelings about what she’s doing and why.

Then we also meet the Israeli soldier (Will Rothhaar) whose bulldozer strikes Sarah, his commanding officer (Avner Garbi), and one of his friends who’s a peace activist. Meanwhile, back in the USA, we get to know and appreciate the perspectives of Sarah’s relatives – her mother (Terry Davis) who supports her, her uncle (Allan Wasserman) and aunt (Ann Bronston) and sister (Adria Tennor Blotta) who don’t – for somewhat different reasons, and her father (Lindsey Ginter) – who sits uncomfortably on the fence.

We feel the shock of the attacks on Israel that precipitated the Israeli army’s actions in Gaza, and we witness the harrowing conditions of life in Gaza while Israel strikes back.

In other words, Dillman sees the complexity of the situation, and she uses all that complexity and ambivalence to intensify the drama. Matt McKenzie’s staging thoroughly respects and delineates the play’s many layers and even manages to pull off a coda that, on paper, might seem somewhat precious.

Although the play was developed at Pacific Resident Theatre, this is a production of Freedom Theatre West. The producer Jordan Elgrably, who led a talkback after the performance of Sarah’s War I saw,  was also on a talkback panel after the performance of My Name Is Rachel Corrie that I saw at the Theatricum last summer. Both talkbacks became somewhat heated, with partisans of varying viewpoints speaking out. Yet in contrast to the Rachel Corrie talkback, the talkback after Sarah’s War wasn’t nearly as interesting as the play that preceded it.

Sarah’s War, Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes March 18. 310-657-5511.

***All Sarah’s War production photos by John P. Flynn

Marley McClean on Acting in "Sarah's War"

It’s always exciting and incredible when I get to work on a production that I feel passionately about.  It’s a rare experience when I am handed a role that is not only a challenge, but incredibly rewarding.  That is the experience I have had the past couple months in rehearsal for Val Dillman’s play Sarah’s War. The play takes place in 2003 and revolves around the true story of Rachel Corrie.  Rachel was a 23-year-old human rights activist who died when she was crushed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer.  She was attempting to prevent the bulldozer, a Caterpillar D9, from destroying a Palestinian home by acting as a human shield.  There is alot of speculation and opinion as to what happened on that day, whether the driver saw her or not, whether he intentionally killed her or not, and as far as I’m concerned I’m not so sure if these questions can be answered.  The story itself is riveting, whether you believe she was a hero or a traitor.  Our play uses different names and is a story of fiction based on true events.  I play a hardened activist who has already been in Gaza months before Sarah (the character based on Rachel) arrives, and am with her the day she dies in the bulldozer’s path.  My character is based on a real woman who was there with Rachel as she died.  She also cleaned Rachel’s body and watched another close friend and fellow activist die from a bullet wound to his head while he attempted to pull a child out of gunfire in Palestine.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer or solve any questions, but presents a story.  It presents hard truths about our government, and about what we as humans are capable of.  It’s been a wild ride, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict awakens many emotions and opinions from people of all walks of life, but I feel that I am fulfilling my purpose as an actor by doing this play.  It’s my belief that art shouldn’t always be comforting or easy, but awaken the senses and present difficult questions..and while doing so hopefully it encourages peaceful discourse and connection rather than hate speech and disconnect.  All I know is that I’m having a blast, feel empowered and am excited!

Visit Marley's blog.

"Sarah's War" Capsule Review by Elana Golden

Sarah’s War is a beautiful piece of playwriting, very well directed, with performances that touch the heart and evoke tears, laughter and many questions to contemplate.

The inspiration for the play is the real life story of the killing of Rachel Corrie by an Israeli soldier in a bulldozer demolishing the house in Gaza she was trying to protect. In the hands of playwright Valerie Dillman, the factual story becomes a universal story that explores the nature of political activism as an act of love, and how a family will try to understand such motives as a way of healing, and as a way of continuing their activist daughter’s work so her death has not been in vein.

While rising above the polemic and exposing different points of view, the play shows us what it means to live in occupied Gaza. It also reminds us that the Palestinians are not forgotten as long as individuals and organizations care and go to occupied—now besieged—Gaza, to be with the people, to witness, to support and to love, and to tell the story for the sake of a brighter future in that region and the world.

Elana Golden, 2/19/2012