Play Challenges Lebanese to Face Past, Present

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A new play has opened in Lebanon that challenges audience members to face the issues that divide their country. In Lebanon, art can be as dangerous as politics. But it can also be revealing.


Political leaders are deadlocked. The country is divided.

These are the stark phrases in every report from Lebanon these days. Now, a Lebanese artist is presenting a play that openly addresses the issues that divide the country, challenging the Lebanese audience to face their past and present.

In Lebanon, art-like politics can be dangerous, but art can also be revealing as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS: A theater performance draws a large crowd in Beirut despite bomb threats, political assassinations and heavy security at the door.

The play, "How Nancy Hoped it Was All an April Fool's Joke" was written by Lebanon's most provocative young author Rabih Mroue. His themes - the mindless gun culture of Lebanon, the deadly sectarian divide, the recycling of political power brokers and Lebanon's collective amnesia about its long civil war - that has earned Mroue a dedicated following. He breaks taboos, says audience member Samira Abusaid(ph).

Ms. SAMIRA ABUSAID (Theater-goer): It's about the war, and it's about things that happened during the war.

AMOS: The Interior Ministry Censorship Board first banned the play for security reasons, then they lifted the ban. So for university student Vartham Havakian(ph), attending this performance is to support free speech.

Mr. VARTHAM HAVAKIAN (Student, Lebanon): When you have the police censor your text, you don't know what is accepted and what is not, so that's our problem.

AMOS: A problem because Lebanon has kept the civil war under a collective blanket. It lasted 15 years with an estimated 150,000 dead and yet, the war is not even mentioned in school history books, says playwright Rabih Mroue.

Mr. RABIH MROUE (Playwright): Until now, like everyone is the winner. So we can't agree on a history where everyone won the war and no one lost it.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: The performance opened with four characters sitting uncomfortably on a sofa with room enough for three - a symbol of a small country with political factions.

(Soundbite of play, "How Nancy Hoped it Was All an April Fool's Joke")

Unidentified Man (Stage Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: They introduced themselves fighters from different regions, different political parties, two Muslims and two Christians. Their every word is a contradiction. They pledge loyalty to a political leader then betray him. They make alliances and break them. They switch sides during the war.

The Lebanese audience laughed, sometimes uncomfortably, recognizing their history. One more thing I should point out here, the four characters are dead, although that doesn't stop them from fighting again.

(Soundbite of woman talking)

AMOS: Mroue demonstrates what he calls this illogical logic. In a reading from one character he plays onstage, a fighter who dies and comes back.

Mr. MROUE: (Reading) This death made me famous and proved important for two reasons. It got me closer to the chief - our party leader - and had led me to my being put in charge of the security in the liberated areas of the East Beirut.

AMOS: This works on one level, says Mroue, because the audience recognizes the game.

Mr. MROUE: We know that all the new generation is going into this video games where you die and you continue the game from the point where you died, not from the beginning. And you continue and die and come back alive and couldn't end -so on and so forth.

AMOS: But Mroue's larger point, he wrote the play out of a real fear of another civil war.

Mr. MROUE: As if we are saying that we are the Lebanese. We are destined to be killed and to come again and continue to war again like we'll not stop. We are not tired, so.

AMOS: So the country is divided again, this time into two camps - two competing visions for the future. Mroue says the camps insist the Lebanese must choose again - for us or against us, black or white, good or evil.

His play is an attempt, he says, to create space for doubt, for (unintelligible), for more choices.

Mr. MROUE: I don't have any kind of illusions that I'm going to do a big change in the society. It's just like a few questions that I'm raising. Hopefully, some people will try to think about this question.

AMOS: Lebanese authorities allowed Mroue to stage only two performances in Beirut, both on the same night. The play has also run in Paris, Tokyo and Rome.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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