Bonus Material

'LINES' 3-in-1: A Timeline Review


May 9, 2024

Ekemini Ekpo

Ekemini Ekpo is a Brooklyn-based actor, media worker and journalist, and a retired Twitter fiend. "We must be engaged in this kind of writing, which calls others into mobilization, generating feelings within our audiences that cannot be dispersed through the act of reading, but must be carried out into collective action. You sit, you read something, you feel grief or anger or joy, you get it all out, you put it down, you go about business as usual—this is the coercive affective system that Craft insists upon. We must write in such a way that there is no business, there is no usual. We must write so that, as Boal says, 'the action ceases to be presented in a deterministic manner, as something inevitable, as Fate… Everything is subject to criticism, to rectification. All can be changed, and at a moment’s notice.'"  Notes on Craft: Writing in the Hour of Genocide by Fargo Nissim Tbakhi

Citlali Pizarro

Citlali Pizarro is a writer, producer, and theater maker. “Craft is a machine for regulation, estrangement, sanitation. Palestine and all the struggles with which it is bound up require of us, in any and all forms of speech going forward, a commitment to constant and escalating betrayals of this machine. It requires that we poison and betray Craft at all turns.” Notes on Craft: Writing in the Hour of Genocide by Fargo Nissim Tbakhi

Shreya Chattopadhyay

Shreya Chattopadhyay is a writer and fact-checker who lives in Brooklyn. In her work, she hopes to enact Tbakhi's mandate "to know what we’re saying and why, and to say it with force, like a stone hurled from the river that reaches the sea."

December 13th, 2023 (Jenin Refugee Camp, The West Bank)

On day 67 of the Israeli government’s escalating genocide against the Palestinian people, the Israeli Army attacks The Freedom Theatre. They open fire, ransacking the theater, breaking windows, and demolishing a wall. Soldiers from the Israeli Army (sometimes called the Israeli Occupation Forces or IOF) then violently arrest and detain several of the theater’s members at their homes, blindfolding and beating them.

[Editor’s Note: More on the Jenin Refugee Camp here. More on this incident here and here and here]

Some are released. Others, like Mustafa Sheta, Producer and General Manager of The Freedom Theatre, remain detained, on…

April 29th, 2024 (New York City)

When the three of us see a play about imprisonment in Palestine (and many other things): LINES at La MaMa.

In LINES, actors Fidaa Zidan, Palestinian, and John Rwothomack, Ugandan, inhabit characters in five prisons over five decades (the 1970s to the 2010s), in Palestine, Uganda, and the U.K. (Zidan and Rwothomack are also the show’s creators, along with Junaid Sarieddeen and Alexandra Aron). Importantly, LINES embodies and (inter)personalizes the violence of imprisonment and life under imperialism often made abstract by oppressive power structures. It’s a vital feat of storytelling, if ambitious — especially at a time when the machinations of power are hard at work to mystify and distract from the very material impacts of the Israeli government's ongoing, U.S.-funded genocide in Palestine.

This compelling endeavor demands a bit more delineation and clarity than the production affords it, though. In its current state, LINES seems a little confused. Content and form, while in conversation, don’t quite harmonize so as to enhance each other. The play makes wobbly jumps between differing historical and political contexts, the interpersonal and structural, the specific and abstract. But it’s most powerful in moments when, instead of jumping between, it connects, stitching these dichotomies together.

Lali - I’m tired and hot on the walk from Broadway-Lafayette Station to the theater. I’m thinking about Mustafa Sheta, as I have for months. I’m thinking about how theaters across the city have remained largely silent about the conditions that led to his imprisonment. I’m thinking about how calling for a ceasefire is the bare minimum to live up to the values (freedom of expression, open dialogue about societal issues, anti-oppression) that most land-acknowledgment-touting, anti-racism-statement-publishing theaters claim to hold, and yet… I’m thinking about how many, despite public pressure, have refused to call for a ceasefire, even as the fire is directly aimed at the makers of theater, which they deem the most constructive tool for fighting injustice. I choose to see — and write about — LINES because it is the only local play I can find about imprisonment in the context of Palestine. This is what follows me into the storied, dim basement of La MaMa.

Ekemini - I knew broadly that this play was about place and the lack thereof that often leads to (im)migration, but I intentionally avoided as much information about the show as possible. I was coming to La Mama from Brooklyn—my favorite part of the journey being when the D train rushes across the Manhattan Bridge, because you can see the sun and the sky. I think about the things in my life that are stressful, then feel a little guilty because my problems feel quite small against the enormity of placelessness.

Shreya - My parents put our dog down this morning. He was not yet nine years old, dying from cancer, spoiled rotten, adored and adoring. I’d said goodbye a week ago and thought I’d come to peace with it. But this morning I’d whisper-sobbed “I don’t want him to die,” and all day I’ve been submerged in the totality of missing him. Missing the world that contained him.

A balmy breeze blows on my way to the train. I tell myself that’s where he is now, in the breeze. And I think about how strange it is, the sting of personal loss amid the monthslong anguish I’ve been feeling as the genocide in Palestine, backed by American might and market and media, has produced horror after horror. Small, stupid, unanswerable questions come up:  Is there a breeze in Gaza right now? Have any parents found their children in it? Or is it all bombs and smoke and rubble?

Before the lights go down I reread a text. “I hope the play is nourishing and enlivening,” my friend Annie had said earlier. “It might feel a world away, but let the art ground you.”

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in LINES. Photo Credit: Steven Pisano.

April 29th, 2024: Like 8:07 pm ish

It starts with a timeline. Fidaa and John arrange flash cards on the stage floor, each with a different date. They span the adoption of Theodore Herzl’s “Uganda Scheme” (1903), its update with the Balfour Declaration (1917), the creation of Israel (1948), their parents’ births, the presidency (1971) and overthrow (1979) of General Idi Amin, the Raid on Entebbe (1976), the First (1987) and Second (2000) Intifadas, Fidaa’s detention in an Israeli jail (2011), John’s turn to atheism (2012) and the two of them meeting at a theater festival in Uganda (2019).

As the two actors recite dates, a projected timeline assembles on the black wall behind them — shaky lines branch off a long spine that holds center. Events taking place in Uganda grow to our left, events taking place in Palestine grow to our right.

In this beginning, they also introduce symbols as guideposts on the timeline they’re about to embody. “To reconstruct these stories, we brought with us some tools we collected along the way. A Koufiyeh. A spoon. A corpse. A chain. A dance. A monkey,” they tell us.

Lali - The timeline is a potent frame for the play, which deals with the theme of time in ways both literal and abstract. The image of the branching memories, married in the center by one single thread, is an apt symbol for a play aiming to connect struggles for personal and collective liberation across time and land. The actors condemn “The big Prison, detaining our history and future. The big Prison, detaining our land and people,” the timeline looming just behind them. I’m mesmerized. In a play that threatens to become unwieldy in its discussion of so many ubiquitous structures, the timeline wants to be an anchor. But the visual disappears after this intro sequence, never to return. The projections become aesthetic ornaments – a waving flag, wiggling barbed wire – rather than connective tissue, holding content and form together.

Shreya - I stare at the line of light lengthening left. I didn’t know about the Uganda Scheme, wherein the Sixth Zionist Congress voted on a British proposal to build a Jewish colony in Uganda, 14 years before the Balfour Declaration established the Empire’s support for the same in Palestine. I’m struck by the contingency of the Zionist movement’s destination, despite all the naturalizing. The new state could have been somewhere else, displaced a different people, just like Fidaa and John could have easily not met at the festival that day.

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in LINES. Photo Credit: Steven Pisano.

April 29th, 2024: Like 8:15ish

Fidaa and John (the actors’ real names are also their characters’) switch from playing “themselves,” tracing history to an audience at La MaMa, to a couple in a Palestinian prison in 1976, the year of the Entebbe Raid. A woman visits her imprisoned partner to deliver news of her pregnancy. (A few minutes later, the actors switch back to “themselves” in the present day.)

We start to get the idea as we watch the first few scenes. Over the course of the play, Fidaa and John switch from playing imagined imprisoned people throughout history to playing themselves in 2019 – two artists and friends, co-creating a show about the histories that make them.

Lali - The first few times the actors switch are disorienting, as the switches are not clearly delineated by acting or technical elements. Fidaa and John do not always find a depth of physical, vocal, and emotional variation between their characters (and themselves), real and imagined. I wonder – are they playing real people throughout history? Or are these characters imagined people, who could have existed in this time period, at this place? Is this Uganda or Palestine? What year is it, again?

Granted that seems, in part, deliberate. Part of the point is that these struggles for liberation are inextricably linked (and that Fidaa and John could have been, and are connected to, the imagined characters they inhabit). It’s a powerful mechanism by which to demonstrate this link (or rather, line?) — collapsing imagination and reality, history and present, interpersonal and abstract into one another. But the relationships between the past and present, the actors and their characters, their real lives, and the abstract must be clearly established at some point in order for the collapse of the space between them to be meaningful. In order to know a line is blurred, I must first know it’s a line.

Ekemini - “In order to know a line is blurred, I must first know it’s a line.” is a word. And it so aptly captures some of my own confusion around the switches in the play. It’s a conceit that I had to adjust to, and by the time I do, we’re 40 minutes into a 70-minute show.

April 29th, 2024: Like 8:39ish

After an interlude in present reality, the actors switch once more to become the daughter of an Arafat acolyte and the son of a disgraced Ugandan military officer, respectively. Now, John is incarcerated in a Ugandan prison, circa 1980, though it’s not immediately clear this isn’t the same couple we just saw in Palestine. All that the actors use to indicate this is a set of metal poles that John stands inside, as if he were a figure in a carceral picture frame, and a stream of light that only partially illuminates his face.

Ekemini - Here, I am reminded that theater is a medium that is powered by the suspension of disbelief. I don’t go to see theater to be convinced that what I am watching is real, when I know it to be fake. I go in the hopes that the art uses the manufactured to engender the feelings of the real thing. Seeing John in a Ugandan prison composed of a few metal poles and one meticulously placed light made me feel the desolation, the constraint, the listlessness in a way that spectacle would not. For me, it might have been the most effective moment of the play.

Lali - In constructing and deconstructing each of the five prisons in the play with only metal poles and cold lighting, the actors also expose how the prison itself is, in a sense, “pretend.” Rather, it’s not inherently true or right, so we shouldn’t take the existence of prisons for granted. They are man-made – a construct of colonialism, as the play reminds us at its outset.

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in LINES. Photo Credit: Steven Pisano.

April 29, 2024: Like 8:43ish

Once John is set up in his prison, we find out that the new Ugandan regime’s guards are subjecting him to heinous acts of torture, including forcing him to act like a monkey. Fidaa, again his wife and now the mother of his child, wants John to escape. She has tried and failed to bring him some English tea but succeeded in sneaking him a spoon. John, as his character (and then, as himself, when the space between the two collapses) refuses to take it. “The spoon? What is he going to do with that small spoon?” After a fiery detour through the minefield of their racial differences, real-life Fidaa says, “Go back to your monkey role, then.”

Ekemini - At least some of the questions that I had been having around the navigation of race within this play come to a head here. Primarily because Fidaa says “Go back to your monkey role.” The line isn’t wholly out of left field, since John had been playing an imprisoned character who was, as a form of torture, coerced into behaving as a monkey.

And yet—because what is the experience of watching theater if not subjective—seeing a non-Black person tell a Black one to act like a monkey hit my chest in a visceral way as a Black (adjective) American (adjective). And I can hold the fact that that experience is probably an unavoidable part of being American.

But what is more difficult to parse is what this moment means to say about how this duo—one Arab, Palestinian; the other Black Ugandan—navigates their racial differences and it (both the differences and the navigation of) informs their artistic collaboration. Or how that changes depending on where they are in the world? (For instance, we learn in this section that in Uganda, Fidaa was viewed as white.) Without that context, a moment that’s gone as soon as it arrives leaves me pondering for the rest of the show. The absence of a racial interrogation of their personal dynamic feels especially unsatisfying given that this play is about empire, which makes it, in a way, all about race.

Shreya - The scene draws on two symbols introduced in the interlude: a teaspoon, which real-life Fidaa stole from a cafe, and ‘English tea,’ a moniker about which she and real-life John argued. As their husband and wife characters’ argument turns increasingly desperate, there’s a moment where there is a dual spotlight: on John’s face, wildly distorted, and on the spoon, which Fidaa is holding up as she dreams of her husband’s freedom.

In 2021, 41 years after this imagined scenario, around the time of the interlude conversation, and two years before the Israeli army’s most recent raid on the Jenin Refugee Camp’s Freedom Theatre, one of its co-founders escaped from a high-security Israeli prison. Zakaria Zubeidi did it by digging, with five other prisoners, using a spoon. Five days later, he was re-captured by the Israeli army.

But they don’t tell us this in LINES. So, as I sit here, my body roiling with tension in the face of John’s contortions, I’m a little distracted when it comes to the spoon. Did real-life Fidaa steal it at the cafe in practical anticipation of a future imprisonment, or in a symbolic nod to the ever-present possibility of resistance? How did real-life John feel about that? Is character-John’s lack of will to dig a function of the degradation he has suffered, or is he turning away from the specter of recapture, looming over every escape? I can’t tell.

Still under the spotlight, John yells: “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ENGLISH TEA!” And finally I feel symbolic weight. ‘English tea,’ like the spoon, is a tool. It’s a tool of empire, made from a plant cultivated by laborers beholden to a brutal colonial regime wearing the silk cloak of ‘administration,’ traded ‘freely’ by the global power that extracted it, carrying that power’s proud name only once it’s been removed far enough from the ground in which it grew and the people who grew it. That world-remaking conquest, the disappeared history of domination. I wanted to scream too.

Ekemini - By now, it’s also occurred to me that the play often seemed to lack an inherent connective tissue holding Uganda and Palestine together. It’s easy for me to make Britain into a scapegoat (perhaps these are my personal reparations as a Nigerian), but I think the play could have more clearly used the fact that Uganda and Palestine are different branches on the same colonial tree to justify that connection.

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in LINES. Photo Credit: Steven Pisano.

April 29th, 2024: Like 9:10ish

Fidaa is falling to the ground, dying, getting up, and dying again. Over and over. This is after John, already in character as a corpse, has refused to help set up for the final scene.

Ekemini - This was one of the moments in which I felt a lack of clarity in performance and intention. At first, I thought Fidaa was herself, stuck in a Sisphyian time loop. But as the death count rose (at one point, taking a pitstop at 34,000—the approximate death count in Gaza as of late April) I instead thought that she might be standing in for a panoply of people. At which point I wondered, “Could she have fallen in a variety of ways, to indicate a variety of people?”

Shreya - Fidaa is breathing heavily as she does this, the higher her death count, the heavier. It strikes me how much exertion, how much breath, it must be taking for her to embody dying in this way. How much life.

Fidaa Zidan and John Rwothomack in LINES. Photo Credit: Steven Pisano.

April 29, 2024: Around 9:17

Fidaa (real life, but in the past) has tied herself to an olive tree on her family’s land. The Israeli government is trying to get her to lease it to them to build ‘clean energy’ windmills — a trap. Fidaa stands in front of a prop windmill center stage, holding a Koufiyeh. “Either you rob us of our land, or you kill us and take the land. Or you kill the land so we abandon the land ourselves,” she says to her occupiers. John describes almost being kidnapped by The Lord’s Resistance Army, as an 8-year-old altar boy. These are the subjects of the original solo shows which brought them together. John stops in front of the windmill/tree, holding a chain in front of his chest, a hecatomb about to meet his end on an altar.

Shreya - Fidaa takes the chain from John and holds it in front of her, relieving his suffering and reinforcing her own tie to the land. She starts swinging the chain; John circles her. The space between them crackles with resolution and with danger. I feel fear — of what the powers are willing to do, of what is to become of them. Fidaa joins John’s dance, and all of a sudden they are facing each other, all of a sudden the dance is the Palestinian dabke. The shift swallows me whole: How is it that these motions, so close to what was just an eerie embodiment of staying as the enemy circles, have become a romp shot through with joy? Or at least its possibility? I think I get it: In choosing the potential of death by resisting, they are making possible the pleasure of life.

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in LINES. Photo Credi: Steven Pisano.

April 29th, 2024: Like 9:22ish

The play ends. House lights come up. We applaud. Then, we climb up the stairs and clamber onto the street, before stopping for dinner at Phebe’s. We eat pasta and nachos, and try to make sense of a play that proposed a lot of dots—dots about imperialism and imprisonment and violence and freedom—but didn’t always connect them.

We talk about how we missed the timeline projection from the top of the show. And a specter of (ir)religion that never fully materialized. And how we can’t tell if our experience of the play as focusing on Palestine over Uganda was an actual imbalance within the play itself, a result of our own imbalance in knowledge, or a reflection of the Israeli military’s violence raging in Palestine at this very moment. Violence that, as we discuss this play, has left The Freedom Theatre’s stage dark.

We marvel at the idea at the play’s center – to personalize what the structures of imperialism mystify (the experience of living under and resisting it). LINES, we decide, was most stunning when it lived up to its name – drawing lines (which necessarily delineate and connect) between liberation struggles, people and their relationships, and even forms of storytelling, and then blurring them. The timeline. The metal poles standing in for prison walls. The dabke circling the circling chain. And we talk about content and form, arriving at a need for yet more delineation in LINES, in order to give meaning to the slippage throughout.

April 29th, 2024: 10:30 pm

We finish our food, step onto Bowery, and eventually go our separate ways.

Lali - I’m less tired on the walk home than I was on the walk to the theater. There’s something about the idea that resistance is choosing life, even in the face of death, that invigorates me. There are stories about this that must be told, must be told now, must be told in ways that make connections. In this way, despite my disorientation throughout, the ending of the play has won me over, at least a little.

Ekemini - As I take my train journey in reverse, I find myself feeling guilty once again, now because I fear the play may have been “right”—as in Righteous (capital R) or Important (capital I), but not theatrically intelligible enough to proselytize a doctrine of liberation to the stone-hearted non-believer.

Shreya - I’m still thinking about what John and Fidaa said to each other while dancing the dabke. “Are we playing Dead or Alive?” she asked. “We are both and we are nothing,” he said. Amid the train’s rumble and the now-cold wind, I feel a little bit both and nothing myself.


Editors’ note: This critical essay aims to shed light on the themes explored in LINES and highlight the intricacies of imperialism, occupation, war, and resistance — all of which are particularly contentious at this moment in history. 3Views specifically chose to move forward with this coverage due to its significance as one of the only plays in New York centering a Palestinian actor and her experience. The aim is to amplify this voice and the voices of our writers who know it’s impossible to rigorously discuss “Lines'' without addressing the ongoing crisis in the region. We encourage thoughtful and care-forward discourse, just as our writers have.

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