"Letter to a Friend in Gaza" ends with a reading of a 1944 letter by Albert Camus, addressed to a "German friend" during wartime. It's the inspiration for the title of this show, and one quote in particular hit me particularly hard: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”
The words transcend their time and original intention, and bring a suitable and powerful end to director Amos Gitai’s unusual work at the Emmett Robinson Theatre. A multimedia performance piece, "Letter to a Friend in Gaza" contains some truly remarkable moments of depth, emotion and pathos. You’re just going to have to work for them.
The bulk of the show is a recitation of poetry by Palestinian and Israeli writers highlighting issues such as identity, political struggles and border conflicts. It’s truly powerful stuff. One affecting segment imagines the questions that children of the conflict will ask their complicit parents in the future. It cuts deep, and there’s no way to hear it and not wonder what questions your own children might one day ask of the things that embarrass them. There is some truly beautiful language here, like the entirety of “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish. “As you return home, to your home, think of others (do not forget the people of the camps).”
But there are some barriers that can hamper the experience slightly. Gitai, an acclaimed filmmaker, makes the jump to theater but does not leave his cinematic tools behind. "Gaza" opens with a 10-minute documentary film recounting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans then skipping ahead with footage of Gitai himself as he flies above his native Israel in a helicopter. The projected images were to big to fit well on the screen, and the subtitles for this section were lost. The narration failed to contextualize this opening section or prepare the spectator for what he was about to see.
The poems are read onstage in Hebrew and Arabic, with English translations on screen. If you don't like subtitles, you will be in deep water here, especially when Gitai floods the screen with footage or live video of the faces of his readers and the words fade into the imagery.
If that doesn't trouble you, though, you are likely to become immersed in the beauty of what is on offer here. The poems are phenomenal, and so are the readings by the cast. Makram Khoury, one of the readers, also is featured in one of the most stunning visual moments of the show, when he sits down following a the reading of a letter while musicians play and sing behind him. We simply listen as some astoundingly good music wafts over us, and we watch as the history of his homeland provokes emotions in him. It’s a “wow” moment.
"Gaza" sometimes feels more like an art installation than a theatrical experience. It would not be out of place in a contemporary art museum or gallery. It is a testament to performance art’s ability to speak to the heart.
Reviewer Michael Smallwood is an actor and writer in Charleston.