Palestinian-Irish playwright Hannah Khalil’s “Scenes from 71 Years” aims to surprise audiences as it tackles a very polarizing subject.
The situation, says Palestinian-Irish playwright Hannah Khalil, is difficult for everyone.
She is referring to the occupation of Palestine, the subject of her play “Scenes from 71 Years,” which is receiving its U.S. premiere at San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, a 23-year-old company that focuses on plays with Middle Eastern themes. The first (and, up to this point, only) production of the play was a four-week run in London, where Khalil lives, in 2016 (at that time, its title was “Scenes from 68 Years”).
Golden Thread founding artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian, who first staged a play by Khalil in 2012 and then again in 2015, was eager to bring “71 Years” here. For Khalil, who wondered if anyone would ever want to produce a play on this controversial subject, to have an American production is astonishing, especially, as she says, at this particular political moment.
“It’s tough in the United States to talk about Palestine,” says Yeghiazarian, who was born in Iran. “It’s very charged…, very polarizing.” Golden Thread has previously produced short plays on the subject, but “71 Years” is the first one that’s full-length. “From the moment
we read it, we loved it,” she says.
Comprising 31 short, tight, interwoven scenes in which nine actors play dozens of characters—mostly Palestinian but some Jewish/Israeli as well, many of them reappearing in various scenes—and a non-chronological time span that stretches from the creation of Israel in 1948 to the 21st century,
“71 Years” is above all a human story. At the play’s inception, Khalil tweeted, “[T]he dates are not vital. They are more for the reference of the company, because the overall feeling should be that whatever the date… the situation for Palestinians remains the same.”
“My main aim,” she elaborates, on the phone from Glasgow, where she was preparing for the opening of her play “Interference” at the National Theatre of Scotland, “is to undercut people’s expectations of what a play written by someone of Palestinian heritage might be, to surprise them with humor and humanity.”
Khalil was raised in Dubai by a Palestinian father from the West Bank and an Irish mother. Sent to an English boarding school at age 10, with summers spent in the family cottage in Kilkenny, she made London her permanent home. Now, after some time as an actor, she is a busy playwright, the recipient of the 2017 Arab British Centre’s Prize for Culture; her play “A Museum in Baghdad” opens at the Royal Shakespeare Company in October.
“I didn’t go looking for this play; it came to me,” she says, of “71 Years.” After her first play about Palestine, “Plan D,” was staged in London in 2010, audience members gathered in the bar after the show and shared their stories. She also read books, watched documentaries and “talked, talked, talked to my family.” In all, the personal stories came mostly from Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora. She was also hugely influenced, early on, by a 1990 visit to Palestine, where she still has family. “Stories from my grandmother, my uncle, my dad, the sights, sounds and smells—it was a very formative time,” she says.
Still, the play was a beast to get right, she admits. “When it comes to structuring a play that takes you on a journey when you don’t have one character driving the narrative: that was a fiddly task. I worked closely with the director and a group of actors in various readings and workshops.”
She ended up with, among many other characters, a boy and his grandfather (“Did you hear the news? They’ve liberated our lands! We’re free, we can go home!” the kid teases the gullible old man in one comic scene); a friendly soldier, on leave for stress, who joins a garrulous shopkeeper for a cup of mint tea (and later, in a disturbing scene, visits an Arab-Israeli prostitute); two young cousins chatting via Skype, one in London and the other in Palestine; an Arab classical musician who’s come to gaze silently at his ancestral home in Jerusalem, now occupied by a European Jew who lost family in the Holocaust; distinctly unfriendly soldiers; a young woman returning from a trip to Auschwitz, where she’s been sent as part of her military service; demonstrators (“No wall in Bel’in!”) and characters with names like “Nervous Man,” “Taxi Driver” and “Mother.” A review in London’s Daily Telegraph described the play as “snapshots of life in Palestine, with Arab and Israeli perspectives presented with grounded precision and humor.”
For this production, Khalil had a long Skype conversation with the director, Michael Malek Najjar, a director, writer and professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene who specializes in contemporary Arab-American theater. Yeghiazarian had worked with Najjar previously and especially wanted him to direct this play because he speaks Arabic (which Khalil does not) and she wanted a touch of that language added in. “The main thing I told Malek,” says Khalil, “is that it’s got to be done with a lightness of touch, not too heavy going, especially in the dark moments. It should not become sentimental or it gets bogged down. It should move fast like a whirlwind. He totally agreed.
“There’s only one moment of violence,” she points out, “the sexual game scene.”
“How do you encapsulate 71 years of an experience without it being a family drama?” asks Najjar rhetorically, on the phone from Eugene. “My initial concerns were that the scenes are so brief, perhaps it wouldn’t give enough scope to the conflict. But after watching [a staged reading], I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. It’s necessary to try to capture this conflict in a less didactic way, more of a mosaic…. Hannah has created this epic portrait, this diversity of experience over all these decades,” a heightened reality rather than a straight play. “In truth, this [situation] is affecting both sides,” adds Najjar, “and I think Hannah’s play is able to give us that experience. It’s a play that should transcend all cultures so we can see this conflict in a new light.”
The cast includes actors of Middle Eastern heritage; says Yeghiazarian, “We wanted some Palestinian actors so we can have the conversation in the room—but not exclusively, because diversity is important to us.” Najjar himself is Druze, an Arab-speaking minority in the Middle East; his family is originally from Lebanon.
“What I want,” says Khalil, “is for people to come and see the play, be provoked.” She hopes audiences will be inspired to go home and learn more about the history and present-day lives of Middle Easterners. Some people have told her the play didn’t teach them enough about the political situation.
“Well, I’m not Google,” she says tartly, on the phone. “I show what it’s like for human beings. I hope people will be surprised and moved to laughter and think about the situation there, and about Palestinians, in a slightly different way.”
“Scenes from 71 Years”
April 5 → May 5
Golden Thread Productions
1695 18th St., San Francisco