Jen Marlowe’s latest production, There is a Field, opens with actor Kesav Wable’s back to the audience. Wable plays Aseel Asleh, a Palestinian teenager and peace-activist who was a citizen of Israel and was murdered in October 2000 by Israeli security forces at a demonstration at the beginning of the Second Intifada. Aseel was one of 13 unarmed Palestinians killed during demonstrations that same month. His sister, Nardeen, played by Amel Khalil, addresses him on stage; she faces the audience head-on.
While the story – told through actual email correspondence between Nardeen and Aseel and based on extensive interviews Marlowe conducted over 15 years with the Asleh family – revolves around Aseel’s murder, the protagonist is Nardeen. Aseel’s back is to the audience in the way of all martyrs: rendered featureless, an emblem of a liberation struggle bigger than him, which works to both galvanize a political movement and obscure the personal details of his life and the intimacies of his family’s grief.
There is a Field probes this tension and captures a young woman’s struggle to simultaneously honor her brother’s memory, her political heritage, her cultural identity and her own personal truth. Additionally, Marlowe insists her audience engage in the reality of life as a Palestinian living in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territory: stereotyped, subjected to racist attacks, villainized in the media, unprotected by the legal system, and generally marginalized by society.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s meant to. Throughout There is a Field Marlowe draws specific connections between the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the African American experience in the United States. At one point, frustrated by her inability to express her views at work in an Israeli hospital (where one coworker snidely suggests she move to Gaza if she doesn’t identify as Israeli), Nardeen exclaims “I didn’t move to Israel, Israel moved to me.” This statement echoes lines from a speech by Malcolm X where the Black Nationalist leader, referencing Black Americans, declared “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Aseel’s story and Marlowe’s exploration are directly connected to the Black Liberation struggle stateside, where communities of color continue to resist racist structures and institutions that grow out of slavery and Jim Crow and persist, for instance, in the pattern of unarmed Black youth being killed with impunity at the hands of the police on a regular basis.
Similarly, Marlowe demonstrates the important role that the media plays in shaping narratives that uphold these systems of oppression. In a heartbreaking scene after Aseel’s murder, Nardeen’s father, Hassan, played with gravity by Alan Ceppos, carefully describes exactly what he saw the day Aseel was killed. He does so because, in a society where his son’s Arab identity gets him labeled a rioter as opposed to a protester in the news, he wants to be absolutely sure Nardeen gets the course of events right for the press.
While Nardeen understands the importance of countering these damaging narratives by playing up Aseel’s peace activism and specifically his participation in the Seeds of Peace program, an organization designed to bring teenagers from regions of conflict together, she nonetheless struggles with the idea that these facts of his life should make him any more worthy of justice than the other 12 unarmed men killed during the demonstrations. Additionally this exceptionalism comes into direct conflict with the personal realization that the affirmation she experienced in her youth, praised by her Israeli peers and seen as special for being educated and fluent in Hebrew, is simply an inward-facing instrument of racism.
In addition to the astute political criticism, There is a Field movingly interrogates the ways in which political movements at times render the features of personal tragedy invisible, with what the tragedy has come to signify often overtaking the complexity of grief experienced by the friends and family of the victim. During Aseel’s funeral scene, Nardeen struggles to get a final glimpse of her brother’s battered face in the rush and din of the funerary procession, composed of hundreds of supporters who stand in solidarity with the family and incidentally obstruct her personal grief process. Nardeen’s younger brother Baraa is only able to watch the events unfold on television.
Marlowe’s play comes with a series of actions that the audience can engage in afterward, including a discussion guide for facilitating conversations around issues of Palestinian solidarity and making connections to structural injustice in the United States. You can see There is a Field as itembarks on its Land Day tour, honoring the first large-scale political protest organized by Palestinian citizens of Israel since the establishment of the state of Israel, on Saturday March 5 at 7PM in Poughkeepsie, NY at Vassar College. CCR is one of the partner organizations on the Land Day tour; see the CCR calendar for information on the upcoming NYC performances on March 28 and 29. A full list of tour dates can be found here. You can learn more about CCR’s long history of challenging impunity for the Israeli government’s violations of international law and efforts to punish activists for speaking out in solidarity with Palestine by visiting our Palestinian Solidarity issue page. Learn more about CCR’s even longer history of fighting for racial justice in the United States here.