Last weekend’s theater department performance of Visiting Lecturer in Theatre Mona Mansour’s The Hour of Feeling contained all of the necessary fixings to capture an audience at the College: the hot-topic issue of Israel and Palestine, phenomenal acting, an aesthetically stimulating set and, most importantly, controversy. While the script’s material certainly contained some level of political polarization due to its strictly pro-Palestine narrative, the majority of the controversy in this production stemmed not from productive discourse brought about by the script’s writing, but rather from decisions regarding the performance’s direction.
The initial misstep was a casting decision to reject actors from the appropriate background to tell this narrative, in favor of casting students based on the tone of their skin. This sort of colorism is widely controversial in the theater world and perpetuates historically problematic representations in theater where an actor of one race portrays a character of a different race, a known form of “brown-washing.” This put the student actors who were cast as Palestinian in a difficult position within the department and the College community and further discomforted students who claim that heritage as their own. Multiple student forums and complaints immediately after the cast list came out did nothing to change the department’s mind and the few panel discussions of experts that the department organized in response to these complaints did little to assuage student’s concerns.
The insensitivity in casting was compounded by various tactless design moves that contributed to ignorant portrayals. For example, a lighting pattern of “Arabic” lettering across the stage was in fact a series of vertical scribbles intended to look vaguely typographically correct. Various members of the production and the audience thought the writing was genuinely Arabic.
As difficult as it is to move past the controversy surrounding the directorial choices of the production, it would be an injustice not to mention the superb quality and artistry of the student acting. Justin Jones ’16 provided a touching rendition, rising above the situation to impart some level of universal truth. Paige Peterkin ’16 took advantage of her limited stage time by transforming the space of the Palestinian house into a unique home through her sass and expressive facial communication.
In a similar vein, Gabrielle DiBenedetto ’16 powerfully portrayed a near-silent force with which to be reckoned. However, even with her poignant portrayal of a newlywed woman of the ’60s, the casting decision continued to make it difficult to fully appreciate her intense work, as minor acts like the struggling with an ironing board lost their levity and began to feel more like a xenophobic joke taking advantage of the “uncivilized” Arab world.
This was the theme of the production in many ways. Thanks to the casting decision, some parts of the script that were intended to get a laugh out of the audience succeeded only in making many of the viewers uncomfortable and unsure of how to react. This is not to discredit the actors who were very conscious and deliberate in their acting decisions surrounding their roles in the context of their circumstances. Even the actors playing British characters – Bailey Edwards ’16, Madeline Seidman ’17 and Scott Lipman ’18 – approached the subject delicately and with aplomb in their scenes in which they played opposite Jones and DiBenedetto, whose characters put on impressive, thick Middle Eastern accents.
The most interesting aspect of the night for me was observing the difference in conversations among different groups at intermission, as the 10-minute respite from the play crafted completely different conversations from different groups of people. One section of students kept reiterating their bewilderment at the insensitivity of the decisions and spoke highly critically of the production.
Meanwhile, a step outside of the theater allowed me to overhear a conversation of older theater elites praising the “genius” behind the work and various design elements. I do not know what exactly these conversations say about theater across generations and within a sensitive liberal-arts environment, but a truly fascinating polarization was evident.
In the end, the more striking elements of the production – from the deliberate transitions in partial light to the dream-team cast – were all overshadowed by a series of design choices that didn’t work for an audience at the College and perhaps should have been avoided in the first place.