Five Characters in Search of a Leader

Times Staff Writer

A man in a spacesuit preaches the virtues of robots. Frustrated characters argue while pushing blocks aimlessly around the checkerboard stage. A young woman belts out a song of hope and revolution as she waits for somebody who never shows up.

This may not seem the most propitious time for a bit of experimental theater here in the violence-torn Gaza Strip, where missiles fall from the sky and bullets fly in the street.

But a dedicated troupe of actors is determined to press on with its production of "Something Going On," an original, offbeat and somewhat controversial play that dares to do in public what many Palestinians will do only in private: criticize their political leaders.

Part "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett and part "Rock the Vote" by MTV, the play blends earnest dialogue about democracy and idealism with tongue-lashings against the arrogance of those in power. Pop tunes trumpet the need for political activism. The drama ends with a call to action, a summons to voters to pull together and throw the rascals out if necessary.

It may sound tame to Californians who have just decided to boot their governor and replace him with a man who, rather than declaiming about robots, played one on-screen.

But "Something Going On" is heady theatrical fare for Palestinians, whose first foray into popular government has been plagued by the corruption and self-enrichment of its leaders and the disenchantment of the people they're supposed to serve.

"We have a very clear and simple message: When you are in a democratic process, then as a citizen, if you elect somebody, you have a right to change him if he doesn't serve your interests," said the play's director, Ibrahim Mozain. "This is a very important message for the Palestinian people: You can make a difference."

The message isn't without controversy. Although it names no names, "Something Going On" clearly takes aim at officials in the graft-plagued Palestinian Authority under President Yasser Arafat.

In doing so, the play breaks an unwritten rule among Palestinians against airing their dirty laundry in public at a time when their society says they ought to direct all their criticism at the Israeli occupation of land they claim as their own. "People say, 'First end the occupation, then deal with internal issues,' " Mozain said. "We say you have to deal with both."

Official Palestinian discomfort with the play has prevented the troupe from securing a steady venue and from following through on a plan to perform it for students on high school campuses. Both were needed for the production to reach wider audiences, because Gaza -- where residents are often hard-pressed to keep body and soul together -- has virtually no commercial theater culture. It doesn't even have a cinema.

But the creative forces behind the play are undeterred. They're used to making waves in this city lapped by the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, the same team from Gaza's Fekra Arts Institute mounted another original work, "Mr. Perfect," which tackled little-talked-about women's issues, such as the stigma faced by divorcees in male-dominated Palestinian society.

" 'Mr. Perfect' and this play were the first plays in Gaza that touched the untouchable," said Rasmi Damo, the head of Fekra, which means "thought" or "idea" in Arabic. "We are talking democracy in this play. This is our right to talk about ourselves, what's going on in our streets."

The playwright is Atef abu Saif, a Palestinian based in Italy. His play is a blend of absurdism, agitprop and other genres. He splits the black-and-white-tiled stage down the middle, with the man in the silver spacesuit and his elegantly dressed companion on one side and, on the other, three friends who sit bickering as they await the man who never arrives.

The would-be spaceman is an elected representative who shows nothing but contempt for the problems and petitions of his constituents. Instead, for some reason he's obsessed with artificial intelligence and technology.

"Look to your own interests -- that's what I'm doing. Let them talk," he says dismissively of his constituents.

On the other side of the stage, it's never clear whether the person that the three friends are waiting for is the silver-suited politician.

But as they fume over his failure to appear, one man voices despair that anything will change, while a young woman tries to rouse the others from their apathy.

"It's our life, and we have to decide," she urges them in one of several pep talks. "We gave them the power to represent us. Without us, they have no legitimacy."

At the play's conclusion, the young woman inspires all the characters to join hands in a "We Are the World" moment as she sings of the possibilities of change and of people pulling together. The ending reflects a hopefulness and perseverance that the actress, like many Palestinians worn down by three years of conflict, confessed she herself doesn't have.

"I'm the opposite," said the actress, 23-year-old Rolla Bakheet. "I'm the type of person who tries once or twice but not a third time. But the character tries once, twice, three times, four times, and keeps going. There's always hope inside her."

Not everyone who watched the play one recent evening, in a Red Crescent Society auditorium, came away convinced.

"It was not hopeful, not really. It reflects our lives, how nothing has changed since we were born until now," said Ranya Baker, 33, who works for the Palestinian Authority's Education Ministry. "We want love for our children. There's no love in the play."

Just plenty of criticism -- which the former minister of culture, Ziad abu Amr, who was also in the audience, acknowledged was largely justified, if a bit exaggerated. "It was daring," he said. "Of course, artistic work has license to dramatize."

But Fekra still hasn't received official permission to perform the play for high school students. It has had to fend off criticism over the use of a mild expletive and accusations that its gimlet-eyed look at Palestinian democracy is somehow linked to the funds the institute receives from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

For now, the play's producers are focused on trying to take their work to Gaza's universities and nongovernmental organizations.

"They say the play is too complicated for high school students, but the truth is that they don't like the play or they see the play as too frank," said Mohamed abu Zayed, the production's project manager. "The play is critical, but it's not defaming anyone, or critical in a bad way. It's critical in a positive way."

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