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How Cultural Resistance for Palestine Makes Revolution Irresistible

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” 
—Toni Cade Bambara

This is a sentence that I state in just about every organizing and activist space I find myself occupying. It’s a simple statement that sums up the work of most of the artists who have inspired my work connecting performance with leftist movements, most notably El Teatro Campesino and Jana Natya Manch, though there are many, many more that I could mention. They are artists who place their artistic practices and creativity in service of movements to create a world in which they want to live.

When I speak to my students about the role of the artist in the revolution, they quickly become overwhelmed by the challenges facing us and the structures, institutions, and systems that keep them in place. To this point, I often add another of my favorite quotes from another of my favorite creative visionaries. Yes, these powers seem inescapable. However, as the visionary speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guinn once said, “So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

This spirit of resistance and change is alive and well in the artists who have been engaging the many organizations and autonomous groups calling for swift and complete action by the United States government in the State of Israel’s ongoing mission to commit genocide against Palestinians. There could barely be a soul in the United States who has not at least heard the propagandized news churning from most mainstream media in the United States, as well as the White House, since 7 October, framing Israel’s response as justified and state-sanctioned, with the ever-growing number of casualties deemed acceptable—at least acceptable enough not to stop them.

There are plenty of organizers across the world who have been sharing, interrupting, and resisting this point of view since Israel began the time-honored, imperial tradition of asymmetrical warfare and rapid dominance. They call upon others to stand up, speak out, and resist what can only be seen as an escalation of Israel’s mission. As of the publication of this article:

  • Over 34,000 people killed, including 14,500 children,
  • Over 77,000 injured,
  • 2,000,000 civilians forcibly displaced (85 percent of Gaza's total population)

News of the attack on the Freedom Theatre was the catalyzing event that sent theatre artists across the world—many of whom were already in the streets attending protests, marches, and gatherings—to rally around the Freedom Theatre and demand the release of Sheta and other artists currently in detention.

For the theatre community, this human tragedy escalated significantly on 13 December 2023, when Mustafa Sheta, the general manager at the Freedom Theatre—located in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank—was pulled out of his home by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), “blindfolded, incarcerated, beaten, and deprived of food or water.” Abu Joas, a recent graduate of the Theatre School at the Freedom Theatre, was also arrested and subjected to similar violence. Shortly afterward, the theatre’s creative director, Ahmed Tobasi, was also beaten and arrested, but not before his home and the theatre’s office were vandalized and sacked by IDF forces. It is certainly not the first assault on any of these artists. Indeed, anyone associated with the Freedom Theatre seems to be a target of the IDF. Bilal Al-Sadi, the chair of the Freedom Theatre’s board (similar to a board of directors), was arrested in October 2022 and detained for six months. As of the publishing of this article, both Al-Sadi and Sheta remain imprisoned in Israel. Tobasi was released twenty-four hours after his arrest and has been vocal and public about his experiences.

A man sits on a pile of rubble in front of a sign reading The Freedom Theatre.

Ahmed Tobasi sits outside the Freedom Theatre after IDF forces destroyed the street. Photo attributed to the Freedom Theatre.

For a specific subset of the theatre community, the arrests went viral, helped by a desperate plea and a well-distributed interview with Ahmed Tobasi on Democracy Now! News of the attack on the Freedom Theatre was the catalyzing event that sent theatre artists across the world—many of whom were already in the streets attending protests, marches, and gatherings—to rally around the Freedom Theatre and demand the release of Sheta and other artists currently in detention. The term “cultural resistance” began to appear in our language, and the amplification of Palestinian stories started to take hold.

One such artist was Leah Bachar, theatre creator and cofounder of Al Límite Collective, a collective of artists emerging from the Living Theatre, a well-known incubator of radical thought, with the goal of creating “performances, rituals and celebrations as acts of creative resistance in non-traditional public spaces and sites of injustice.” Leah was activated as an artist/activist during her time with the Living Theatre, and the ethics of Judith Malina’s “beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution” have been a guiding force in her work artistically and politically for more than a decade. Having just returned from Palestine alongside fellow Al Límite cofounder Monica Hunken after participating in the most recent Feminist Theatre Festival at the Freedom Theatre, Leah was incensed, mobilized, and energized to use her skills and talents as a theatre artist and producer to support both the ongoing call for the release of the members of the Freedom Theatre and the larger call for a complete and total ceasefire in Palestine.

A group of people protest on a street.

Monica Hunken and Leah Bachar perform with Al Límite Collective at the Cultural Resistance March in New York City. Photo by Ken Schles.

And while Leah has been working with and advocating for Palestinian artists since at least 2016, she was called to organize the cultural workers of New York after the arrest of Mustafa Sheta, Ahmed Tobasi, and Abu Joas on 13 December. The Freedom Theatre was still in her body, mind, and spirit when Israeli soldiers marched into Gaza. Even though she was in another country at the time, Leah found ways to support her fellow Al Límite Collective members and a cadre of like-minded and equally motivated artists from organizations, such as Noor Theatre and the Friends of Jenin Freedom Theatre (USA), who mobilized a rally on 19 December at Astor Place in New York City, just blocks away from several of New York’s most significant theatre institutions. There, they made space for Palestinian activists to speak to the assembled crowd of theatre artists and patrons, and actors and theatre directors read poems and segments of plays from the Freedom Theatre archive. They presented kites adorned with images and names of detained Freedom Theatre members, a poetic reference to the slain poet Refaat Alareer, whose poem “If I Must Die” has spread across the world.

The following month, Leah more fully participated in one of the most compelling events in the theatre ecology of New York City connected to the call for a free Palestine: the Cultural Resistance March. Co-sponsored by Noor Theatre, National Queer Theatre, Friends of Jenin Freedom Theatre (USA), Al Límite Collective, Queers for a Liberated Palestine,Writers Against the War on Gaza, and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, the march convened hundreds of artists, cultural workers, and New York City citizens who marched through the streets of the theatre district while audiences were waiting in queues to enter their Broadway shows, stopping to perform Bob Dylan’s protest classic “Masters of War,” in front of Town Hall and stopping in front of the Spamalot marquee at the St. James Theatre to perform selections from The Gaza Monologues by ASHTAR Theatre— another well-known and respected Palestinian theatre company under direct threat—and myriad other cultural and artistic offerings occurring throughout the march.

Then, in February, Leah and Al Límite produced the People’s Fair for Palestine at Judson Memorial Church, an indoor offering for “Cultural workers, creatives, justice and information workers, and anyone striving to build anew” with an afternoon of music, poetry, dance, theatre, speeches, and tabling all designed to rally and connect anyone invested in supporting the liberation of the Palestinian people. More work is planned until the bombs stop falling and the Freedom Theatre is truly free.

A man plays a guitar in front of a microphone.

Fouad Dakwar performs at the People’s Fair for Palestine at Judson Memorial Church. Photo by Ash Marinaccio.

The specific realities and needs for a free Palestine are never far from the thoughts and artistry of playwright and theatremaker Fouad Dakwar, a musical theatre writer and content creator who is now fully invested in creating work that responds to the movement and his Palestinian homeland. As he told me in a recent interview, “I always told myself that I wouldn't write anything about Palestine until I'm ready. I don't know if I'm ready or if my craft is there yet, but it feels more important than ever.”

Ready or not, Fouad is a consistent presence at protests and rallies around New York City. Fouad’s voice, and the voices of other Palestinian cultural workers in the United States, are necessary and rarely amplified in the theatre landscape of New York City, where stories from the region and conflict are met with powerful resistance. At the Cultural Resistance March, a speech Fouad gave made it clear that his words are more than ready to meet the moment:

I watch videos from Gaza and wonder whether I, or any artist, truly has any power at all. The price of entry to witness this genocidal tragedy are American tax dollars, and the starring cast consists of people who look like me, who could have easily been me. I look up at the balcony in this theatre and see my mom's late cousin, Juliano Mer-Khamis, co-founder of the Freedom Theatre, who literally sacrificed his life to help the children of Palestine tell their own stories, to dream beyond Israel's illegal military occupation.

So what right do I have? What right do any of us have to turn our backs, to lose faith, and start to question the efficacy of our art and our voices when none of them did? Juliano's vision for cultural resistance through theatre proved that the violent status quo fears the artists.

For him and many others in the streets, adding their immense skills as artists to this cause is a natural extension of who they are as artists. Fouad grew up attending protests with his parents, who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and began writing musicals in high school and found in the medium a popular form in which he could connect people to social justice issues. This is something quite common for artists who place their craft in service of movements. They tend to either already be involved or, for some reason or another, primed to support such causes. And in moments such as this one, when the call goes out, consciously or not, they are ready to leap into action. As the refrain from the opening banger in Fouad’s pop-punk musical Fouad of Nazareth rings out:

I’ve been through this before
I’ll go through this again, 
Here or there, I’m not sure 
It’s more a question of when

A woman reads a monologue at a music stand.

Liz Morgan reads an introduction at a performance of The Gaza Monologues performance at the People’s Forum. Video still from event produced by ASHTAR Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC.

Another artist who was primed and ready to step into these spaces is the playwright and performer Liz Morgan. It seems an obvious fit. Liz is the director of training and pedagogy at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, the stellar organization that uses Augusto Boal’s iconic and impactful theatre of the oppressed techniques to challenge economic inequality, racism, and other social, health, and human rights injustices.

The aesthetic of Radical Evolution’s circus show weaponizes humor and satire to strategically assault systems of power.

Her activation into the movement for Palestine primarily comes through her participation in an ensemble of artists from Radical Evolution, a company I co-founded. The artists of Street Theatre Crew make work “For the Streets and For the People.” Inspired by their training with the historic street theatre company Jana Natya Manch and the construct of El Teatro Campesino’s “actos,” short agitprop political plays, the Street Theatre Crew took satirical aim at the media’s blatant and biased coverage of Israel’s assault and genocidal aims in Palestine. They created a “Modern Media Circus” in which Liz takes center stage as the frighteningly out of control Ringleader, a character she wrote with obfuscating, rhyming banter:

And if my grandiosity and grand verbosity already has your head spinning, turn your gaze to our first act as they spin the truth, toeing the line of “objective reporting,” walking the tightrope of bias. They’re gravity-defying and massacre-denying… Behold Our Flying Lying Alternative Factrobats!

The show had its first public sharing at the People’s Fair, and most team members reported being incredibly nervous. After all, many events surrounding the devastation of Palestine are rightfully somber events, and the aesthetic of Radical Evolution’s circus show weaponizes humor and satire to strategically assault systems of power. In this way, the show stood out significantly from other events on the bill. And Liz, as the ringleader in the center of it all, was understandably nervous. In an interview for this article, she told me she “was just like, ‘are we going to get up there and just make folks upset?’ It's possible that we did, but in the right way. Making sure that people stay angry and that people have laughter and joy is also part of the work.”

But it was clear to the team that by the time the show crescendoed to its penultimate song-and-dance number, “Don’t Say Genocide,” the audience was with them. In this case, it seemed that after a few hours of heavy emotions, the audience seemed ready and willing to laugh. As El Teatro Campesino’s founder, Luis Valdez, once said, “You have to make fun of the tragedy in life in order to overcome it.”

These are just three of the many, many artists working around the clock to support a liberated Palestine. They reflect the true strengths of this kind of grassroots movement, both unified in purpose and pluralistic in its web of leadership. One of these strengths is the movement’s decentralization. After all, it's hard to topple a movement without a top. There are many different groups mobilizing in many different ways, and each of the artists mentioned above is finding their own ways to lean into their strengths to support this movement: Leah through organizing artists; Fouad through musical theatre, autobiography, and comedy; Liz through street theatre. Each one defining and uplifting the value and necessity of “cultural resistance.”

This is the best boot camp for coming together and supporting each other because our freedom is not guaranteed.

This strategy is one of many challenges as well. Cultural workers, activists, organizers, and more are constantly working to create a network that is a “net-that-works.” Without this interconnected weave, common issues come up. Chief among them are the all-too-familiar issues of burn-out (because the same few people are doing 90 percent of all the difficult, time-consuming labor) and splintering of groups. While completely committed, each of these artists also spoke to me of the level of exhaustion that has begun to set in.

This is why artists such as Leah, Fouad, Liz, and so many others, and the smaller, more nimble organizations and cohorts working alongside them, are so essential. Organizers call out to artists in almost every movement and activist space I have experienced: “Please make propaganda for us. Make our revolution irresistible.” This call is as old as the need for social change. Movements need artists at every step. They need us. Palestine needs us. The Freedom Theatre needs us. The Movement need us. And we need them. As Leah Bachar asserts:

One of the biggest reasons why I am part of this movement is because I don't consider it only a Palestinian cause. And while, yes, people are talking about Palestine, we're also talking about ourselves. All of these things are things that can happen here in the United States. And so, as cultural workers, we're no different than anybody that is under occupation. This is the best boot camp for coming together and supporting each other because our freedom is not guaranteed to be permanent.

So that call sounds on the corners, in the rallying spaces, and out in the streets; and it leads each and every artist to the inevitable questions:

Are you listening?

Will you answer?

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Thank you for your article. I'm surprised you did not mention Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, the first theatre company in the US devoted to theatre for or about the Middle East. They have dedicated their 2024 season to Palestine and recently closed a sold out run of Returning to Haifa, adapted from the Ghassan Kanafani novella by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace. In March 2024, their annual What do the Women Say? featured several Palestinian artists and activists including two attending via zoom from the Middle East. In fact at last year's ReOrient Festival, only days after October 7, they created space for Palestinian artists to speak about their personal grief, loss, and coping mechanism in a panel titled, Sustainability and Self-Preservation: Palestinian Artists Speak Out. Golden Thread's advocacy for Palestinian artists and their centering of Palestinian narratives is not only inspiring but can serve as a model for other theatre companies in the US who sadly have remained silent on this issue.

Hi Torange, Thank you so much for lifting up the incredible work Golden Thread does and for providing these links for folks to further explore. Beto chose to focus his article primarily on individual artists based in NYC, but we do welcome and encourage others to contribute writing about the important work happening elsewhere around the country and around the world! 

For those reading, we encourage you to also check out Golden Thread's conversation series No Summary—the upcoming four sessions of which focus on theatremakers in Palestine: https://howlround.com/series/no-summary

Thank you again, Torange, for naming Golden Thread here, and of course for all your own work.