Review: Walls - Presented by Women In Black

Summer Awad's evocative new production Walls: A Play for Palestine knows its audience, and speaks to them honestly, eloquently, and directly from the heart. This dramatic political commentary's greatest strength lies in the language of the playwright itself: the rich tapestry of interwoven poems, monologues, and short scenes serve to entertain, educate the uninitiated, and invigorate those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

For their fifteenth anniversary celebration, the local activist group Women In Black invited the creative team of playwright Summer Awad and director David Ratliff to remount Walls back home in Knoxville after its premiere at UT's Lab Theater and a successful run at the NYC Fringe Festival. Staged for a packed house of around 100 at Happy Holler's Modern Studio, the play recounts the journey of Diaspora Girl (Summer Awad) endeavoring to grow closer to her Palestinian heritage personified by the character of Mother Palestine (Jasmine Walker). Her journey is complicated not only by her personal maturation into a progressive American feminist, but also by the problematic relationship with her conservative father Baba (John Abraham). The production relies more on storytelling than staged drama, with most scenes delivered as poetic monologues; the most notable exceptions being several vignettes between Diaspora Girl and the characters DudeBro and Prom Date both played with humorous effect by Craig Cartwright.

In political theatre of this kind, where the goal is not simply to entertain, but also to educate and motivate the audience; the performers take on two sets of (sometimes conflicting) responsibilities. Diaspora Girl must be both a real person on a real journey of discovery, and also represent the experiences of many other members of the contemporary Palestinian diaspora. Awad's portrayal of the largely autobiographical role is heartfelt and earnest, but at times she necessarily places the political message of the play in front of her dramatic performance. Likewise, Walker's depiction of Mother Palestine must tread a fine line. Her narratives carry the bulk of the piece's historical and cultural context, and she does an admirable job of relating this information with warmth and empathy, though ultimately we are never allowed to forget that the character is more metaphor than flesh and blood. Abraham's portrayal of Baba emerges as the most fully realized character in the piece, though not necessarily the most sympathetic one. Baba is alternately unyielding, temperamental, conflicted and alienated, and Abraham's deft portrayal of these internal conflicts results in the evening's most gratifying dramatic moments. 

Walls follows in the relatively recent dramatic tradition of Dahlia Taha’s Keffiyeh/Made in China and Jen Marlowe's There is A Field, providing Palestinians with an amplified artistic voice in a political climate where their experiences and perspectives are largely ignored or systematically silenced. Awad's own authorial voice is sharper and more cunning than many first time playwrights, offering both moving personal insight as well as eloquent social commentary with language she has honed to a keen edge through her work as an award winning spoken word artist. Director David Ratliff wisely respects the power of Awad's voice and recognizes that the play's purpose is best served through relative stillness. He does not muddy the waters with excessive staging or over-production, allowing a few simple chairs, and the occasional well-placed sound cue to further focus the audience's attention where it should be: on the voices of the actors and the stories they tell.

In Knoxville's contemporary performing arts scene, Walls stands out for its brave willingness to trust local audiences with material that pushes against the prevailing political and social narratives, and invites them to use the theatre as a communal place for raising awareness, exchanging ideas, and sharing perspectives. Depending on your political stance, Walls has the power to provoke action, conversation, questions, contemplation, empathy, or disagreement. That is the kind of theatre more companies and audiences across the south should be looking to foster: artistically rich and effective work that offers relevant and useful insights for the local community it speaks to.

You have two more chances to explore the powerful voices of this unique production. Saturday 9/16 @ 7:30p & Sunday 9/17 @ 2:00p. Click here to get all the details.

--

JP Schuffman is the Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, critic, super-nerd, and novice unicyclist.