Hands Up Project Remote Theatre Debut in the USA

This week’s blog comes from volunteer Becca Young whose tireless efforts have led to our first contact in the U.S.A.

It’s understandable if you think that, for people in the USA, the inauguration of a president was the most spectacular event in the month of January 2021. But that means you must have missed out on a much more auspicious occasion: the North American debut of Lockdown Theatre by the Hands Up Project, via a live broadcast on Facebook with the Palestine Museum US, on Friday, January 24th.

The Palestine Museum is located in Woodbridge, Connecticut, and operates under the directorship of Faisal Saleh. According to its website, the purpose of the museum is “to celebrate Palestinian cultural and artistic achievements, [and] … to tell the Palestinian story to US and global audience through works of art, film, literature, and mixed media”. Therefore this new cooperation between the Hands Up Project and the Palestine Museum is a wonderful fit, and an excellent way to introduce Hands Up to a US audience. After an introduction by Nancy Nesvet of the Palestine Museum, Nick Bilbrough had a chance to tell the story of how Hands Up Remote Theatre came about, from a 2017 conversation of English teachers who decided to have a play competition in order to provide a forum for Palestinian children to tell their story to the world.

Then Nick shared the video of a play from the first year of the competitions, entitled, ‘I have a dream’. The play opens with a group of young people, who have lost their parents, speaking about their dreams: one girl wants to be a model and another wants to be the president so she can “make life worth living”. Of the three boys in the play, one wants to be a doctor, one an astronaut, and the third wants to be a professional musician. As each person tells his or her dream, the audience sees that person living out their dream. Next, an actor named Deema recites the words to the Abba song, ‘I believe in angels’. The video concludes quite movingly with the students’ teacher Esraa writing them a note, “Pain is temporary, but glory is eternal.” After the video ended, Nick shared the happy news that Deema was able to live out her dream when she was able to study in the US for a year as an exchange student. He added how the young people of Palestine often speak about their dreams, not only as just seen so vividly in this particular play, but in many of the plays done for the Hands Up Project. 

Faisal Saleh & Nancy Nesvet welcome The Hands Up Project for a very special collaboration

Nick explained that, for the second year of competitions, the organizers decided to ask students to record their plays in a single take rather than being able to edit them. In that way, the actors would be challenged to learn all their lines, as would happen for a live performance. It also adds a stronger participatory dimension to the plays, because even with only a cellphone, people can record a play. Then, in the third year, the world went into lockdown, including in Gaza, but Nick explained that, “The people of Palestine didn’t give up. They developed a new genre of remote performances called Lockdown Theatre.” 

As examples of each of these major developments, Nick shared two more recorded plays. First, he showed a play performed in a single take, called, ‘I can’. It portrays a boy who can see his dreams and tries to show them to his friends, who look down on him (literally and figuratively), telling him the many reasons his dreams can’t come true and placing barriers in front of him. The final barrier has the all-too-familiar red circle with a white center stripe indicating, ‘no entry’ or ‘wrong way’. The play ends with the boy breaking through the barriers, arms held high, and the words, “I am a human” written across his arms as he comes towards the camera, shouting “Yes, yes,” as dramatic music plays in the background.

The next play was recorded from a live performance in a Zoom session. The name of the play was, ‘An exile inside the homeland’. The play begins powerfully with only two hands appearing in an otherwise black background. One of the actors moves into view in the Zoom window. The actors are two girls, playing the role of a father and son who have been separated from each other. The son speaks of the pain at not having his father to share his achievements in life. The father speaks of the pain of the bitter reality of exile inside his own homeland, because he is in prison. The play ends with their hands reaching out for each other, a reminder of how, when visited in prison, families aren’t allowed to touch their loved one, but can only touch the two sides of the glass barrier between them. In the current lockdown, similarly, many can only reach out to their loved one through the barrier of the glass Zoom screen, so it resonates strongly with the audience as well.

“I couldn’t say goodbye”
A play written & performed by Eman and Marwa with support from their teacher Amal Mukhairez

After these remarkable videos, Nick introduced two plays performed live by the actors during the event. The first play was from the 2020 competition and was called, ‘I couldn’t say goodbye’. It tells the story of a mother grieving for her son who has died. At the end, the son comes to her as if in a vision and reassures her that he is now safe and at peace, bringing her great comfort and setting her free, just as her son has also been set free.  The second play, ‘Oh my home’, makes innovative use of the green screen in order to have a girl play the role of the sea. As the sea, she speaks of its pain as the place where people lose their lives as they try to escape the occupation by boat. The play ends with a plea for people not to risk escape by the sea but to remain in Palestine, despite the dangers and suffering, because it is their home, without which, we are told, their hearts will not beat.

Asked about the significance of performing live plays via the internet, Nick pointed out that although it is nerve-wracking and stressful, there is an important connection with the audience. At any moment, something could go wrong. That makes it beautiful because, while something could go wrong, something could also go wonderfully right, as seen in these incredible performances. 

The two actors Nour and Haya from “Oh my home’ spoke movingly about their feelings when performing the plays. Nour said they are able to clearly and effectively share their message to the world because they do so honestly. Being able to participate in the plays, she added, makes her very proud, because she can share an important international issue that everyone should be aware of. Haya continued that thought by saying, “Being able to give our message to the whole world is the greatest achievement of my life”. 

The teacher Shoroq, discussing her students’ play, ‘Exile in my homeland’, said that in order to convey the reality of the situation in Palestine, they must express the deep feelings of their hearts, and she believes her students are able to do so with remarkable poise and style. She thanked Nick and the Hands Up Project for connecting her with Gaza, a chance she had never had before and that has moved her deeply. Another teacher, Imad, whose students performed the play ‘I can’, said that the Hands Up Project is a unique outlet for the children of Palestine. Through it, he has discovered remarkable talent among his students. He also said that doing the plays has provided a bridge for him both emotionally and physically to the outside world. 

Teacher Shoroq Daraghmeh discussing “Exile in my Homeland”

Nick pointed out that the students and teachers from the winning plays each are given the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank. For Imad and his fellow Palestinians, it is like going to Paradise. “Offer me a trip to London or to Jerusalem, and I choose Jerusalem every time”, Imad said with conviction. Haya, the student, spoke of her joy at getting to visit the West Bank and of the friends she made there, with whom she continues to stay in contact. The teacher Amal, whose students’ performances have won in two of the past three years of the competition, said that the plays are her students’ only connection to the world outside Gaza, and also serve as a peaceful response to their difficult situations. They are acting, of course, but what they are communicating to the world is what is all too painfully real in their lives. 

Faisal Saleh of the Palestine Museum noted that the music at the conclusion of the plays was “Mawtini,” considered the informal or “second” national anthem of Palestine. The lyrics were composed by the Palestinian poet ʾIbrāhīm Ṭūqān.

The Hands Up Project is deeply grateful to the Palestine Museum US for its willingness to hold this joint event and allow the voices of the people of Palestine to reach a wider audience in the USA. It was the first event with the museum but we certainly hope it will not be the last.

Popcorn, Welcome To Earth, and Toothbrush, the three anthologies of plays from the competitions, are available online, both from the Palestine Museum, for those in the US, and directly from the Hands Up Project’s website.

https://handsupproject.org/how-to-buy-our-books-of-plays-created-by-young-people-in-palestine/

To view the live event and witness these remarkable plays directly, they are available on the Palestine Museum’s Facebook page at the following site: 

https://www.facebook.com/PalestineMuseum.US/videos/697462774253771