Arab-Israeli-American cast cooperate in drama urging peace in the Middle East A WORLD OF ARTS IN COLUMBIA

June 23, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

TC The Columbia Festival of the Arts, which last year drew better than 30,000 people to more than 60 events, is back for its third season beginning Thursday night when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, right, performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Over the following 10 days, festivalgoers can partake of visual arts exhibits, free entertainment at the Columbia lakefront, workshops and master classes and an array of performances by such world-class organizations as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Garth Fagan Dance and our own Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

For a complete schedule, see page 3M.

It's probably the only professional theater company in which Arabs, Israelis and Americans work side by side. The combination may sound combustible, but the thesis that's set forth by VOICETheatre's production of "Pushing Through" is that peace can be achieved through cooperation.

And, the very creation of "Pushing Through" suggests this goal is possible. Described by its author and director, Shauna Kanter, as a collage of voice, movement and dramatic scenes, the five-woman play will make its Maryland debut Saturday and next Sunday at the Columbia Festival of the Arts, an 11-day smorgasbord of music, dance, theater and visual art (see accompanying schedule). Sunday's performance will be followed by a symposium conducted by the Dialogue Project of American Jewish and Palestinian Women.

"When I go to rehearsal, I'm not thinking about the way nations interact, but basically, if there's going to be peace in the world, it's not going to happen with politics, it's going to happen on a grass-roots level, person to person," says Ms. Kanter, a voice coach and former actress who is also artistic director of the New York-based VOICETheatre (formerly known as Voiceworks!).

"Basically, we're dealing with two issues here," she says. "How do you make a play, and how do you get people who are taught to hate each other to love each other? It's a very hard matchmaking business."

Ms. Kanter, however, is apparently a skilled matchmaker. In the three years since she conceived "Pushing Through," she has collaborated with actors of numerous nationalities, beginning with 30 French actors who participated in three months of workshops commissioned by an agency of the French government in 1988.

Initially, she explains, the piece was about the more general subject of oppression, although Palestinean characters always figured prominently. She narrowed the focus to the Arab-Israeli conflict after reading a book titled, "O Jerusalem," by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

The decision to use an all-female cast came about because Ms. Kanter wanted the play to be "more about peace. . . . I felt an all-female cast would be able to achieve that. I wanted to strip away as much politics as possible, as much blame as possible."

At the same time, she realized "that for the credibility of the piece, there needed to be at least one Arab actress and one Israeli. I just felt that as a company, at least two people would need to push through the stereotypes and fears." As its title suggests, "pushing through" stereotypes and fears is what the play is all about.

Jackie Sawiris, the show's Arab actress, is an American citizen who grew up in Towson, though she was born in Libya of a Jordanian mother and Egyptian father. She portrays a Palestinean in most of the scenes, but the play also requires her to occasionally appear as an Israeli, a shift she says she had no trouble making. "The whole show is such an emotional roller coaster, and the same emotions really course through my veins -- the fear and hatred and anger."

Furthermore, Ms. Sawiris points out, in portraying women of both nationalities, she is also demonstrating one of the themes of the piece. "The best anyone can get from seeing the show is to see how alike we are, how alike people really are," she explains.

This doesn't mean there has never been dissension within the VOICETheatre company. Although Ms. Kanter says the current troupe is almost always in agreement, last year there was an Israeli actress, no longer in the company, who had great difficulty delivering a monologue spoken by a Palestinean character.

Similarly, Ms. Sawiris, who joined VOICETheatre a year ago, says that when rehearsals began for this summer's performances, she felt the work had taken on a pro-Israeli slant. "I said, 'I can't do this,' " she recalls. After she expressed her concerns to Ms. Kanter, changes were made to restore the balance, and, Ms. Sawiris says, "We worked it out."

Changes have also been made to reflect the recent Persian Gulwar. For example, there's a new scene about a sealed room, based on experiences related by the sisters of the company's Israeli actress.

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