The Freedom Theatre, an independent Palestinian cultural center located in the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, opens a limited tour of Athol Fugard’s award-winning play “The Island” at UConn’s Nafe Katter Theatre on Sept. 6.
Performances will begin at 7 p.m. on Sept. 6, and at 2 and 7 p.m. on Sept. 7.
The play explores the lives of two prisoners who share a cell during South Africa’s apartheid regime. One is soon to be released and the other is serving a life sentence. The production is directed by Gary M. English, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Dramatic Arts at UConn, who just completed a one-year sabbatical serving as artistic manager of The Freedom Theatre, and features actors from the Jenin refugee camp.
The U.S. tour – which will also head to Brown University in Providence, R.I., Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and New York City – will be an English-language production of the original Fugard play. The performance in the West Bank was an Arabic translation of the play.
“Fugard is a brilliant playwright and part of his brilliance is what he chooses to be specific about,” says English. “Even in the original play, while it’s generally known that “The Island” refers to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, they never speak of Robben Island specifically. Part of that is the idea of the island as an existential place, a psychological space, a point of isolation.”
The two Palestinian actors say the core story told in “The Island” is likely familiar to some residents of the Jenin community who have been imprisoned as a result of the conflict over disputed territories or have had a family member in prison.
The actors are both graduates of The Freedom Theatre’s Acting School, and have toured Europe with various Freedom Theatre productions. After the original performances in Jenin, the Freedom Theatre performed the play in Sweden.
English says taking the Freedom Theatre productions on tour provides a challenge for the acting company.
“Performing in the English language is a tremendous and wonderful challenge for them,” he says, adding that it also changes the nature of how the Freedom Theatre production is perceived, not just as Arabic theater, but as “Palestinian theater that reaches out through another cultural window.”
The actors say they hope their performances in the United States will provide a better understanding of what is happening in the occupied West Bank.
“When we’re done here, we want people to visit us in Palestine,” says Ahmad Alrakh.
Adds Faisal Abu Alhayjaa: “I grew up in the Jenin refugee camp. It’s 17,000 people living in one kilometer square. … What I want as an artist is to take this experience with the Freedom Theatre and give it to the next generation.”
For more information, go to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre website.