Tony Award winning play Oslo is a partially fictional account of the events between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israeli officials leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, dramatized for the stage by J.T. Rogers. Currently receiving its Chicago premiere, it initially premiered Off-Broadway in June 2016 directed by Bartlett Sher at the Lincoln Center. The original cast then moved to Broadway to reprise their roles in April 2017 receiving awards and acclaim from New York Critics, Outer Critics, Drama Desk, Drama League, Lucille Lortel, Obie awards and other nominations along the way.
Timeline’s highly anticipated co-production of Oslo with Broadway in Chicago seems to fit perfectly with its mission to present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues. As a production, it aimed to explore sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen’s theory that trusting in each others’ inherent humanity and building interpersonal human connection is the only basis for healthy debate, and potentially peacemaking. The lobby display as well as a program insert provided a historical guide to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while a huge column scribbled with sharpie responses asked audience members to participate in the conversation Timeline chose to center: “How do you resolve conflict?”
Protagonist Terje Rod-Larsen pursues an answer to this question as the action unfolds. He illustrates for the audience early on the difference between two theories for peacemaking. First, Totalism, a “rigid” and “impersonal” method of arbitration that had up to now been utilized by the United States and other world powers to impose their own solutions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Second, his theory of Gradualism, rooted in the “personal” with a basis in building trust, in this case between small parties, slowly over time after tackling one single issue at a time. Larsen’s theory, altruistic in its intention, was framed and held in place by the single promise made near the top of the play: he and his wife Mona Juul promised not to interfere in negotiations, only to facilitate. “Whatever happens between them, we cannot interfere. If we are seen by anyone as meddling, as favoring one side over the other,” Mona Juul says to her husband, who reassures her once again he would not interfere, as his model is “the opposite of the American approach”.
However, J.T. Rogers’ script and Timeline’s production, directed by Nick Bowling, directly contradicts the very theory the real Larsen set out to prove with the Oslo experiment: that two opposing forces, without the interference of unconsciously biased third parties, could come together through genuine cultural sharing, trust building, and interpersonal exchange to resolve their conflicts.
“Terje. It’s not about you,” was one of the lines that still lingered in my mind as Mona Juul (played to her highest strength and intelligence by powerhouse Bri Sudia) reminded her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (played as goodhearted and charmingly optimistic by Scott Parkinson). This directive is given near the end of the 3 hour storytelling endeavor, that the Oslo Accords were, by his own design, not about him.
It didn’t bother me that the play was ultimately about Larsen, as it was transparently marketed as purposefully centering the impact that the two warring parties had on the neutral party. What I found odd was that after three hours of Larsen insisting this wasn’t about him, this fictionalized Larsen is a man who ultimately did expect credit at the end. He brisks to Mona that there were no seats for them on stage at the ceremony and balks at her suggestion that they stand “in the back.” All the while this production made no effort to acknowledge the theme these actions generate: a white man enters an important conversation that is not about him, insists on just facilitating, meddles in affairs based on what he feels is best for the group, then rebukes the lack of acknowledgement of his part in helping.
This was a missed opportunity for a majority white theatre company who frequently produces stories featuring people of color to humbly turn the eye of examination on themselves and their audience. Rogers’ script gave us the initial contract that these white people would not place themselves in the center of this narrative, yet once they eventually did the production ignored the opportunity to examine that phenomenon. Instead the production used the deeply nuanced Palestinian and Israeli cultures and histories to ask what they believe is a bigger, more important question.
Using Palestinian and Israeli culture to explore the oversimplified question, “what is the best way to resolve conflict?” strips both sides of their respective nuance in the process and therefore loses the very humanity it intended to invoke. Despite having three cultural consultants listed in the bill, the Palestinian & Israeli characters and their respective cultural differences are used in this script as generic punch lines and plot devices for the Norwegians’ journey. An Israeli official, Yossi Bellin, states he can’t eat anything spicier than gefilte fish. PLO leader Ahmed Qurie mishears his code name as “the Falafel”. In the staging of this play, the Palestinian characters especially lean towards caricatures that invoke stereotypes of what many Americans have been taught to believe an angry Arab is like.
The nuances Rogers does have in place are underutilized. In one scene while awkwardly making small talk about the wet London weather being different from “home”, Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani) yells at the top of his lungs about having not been home since every man woman and child was forced to flee their homeland “before the advancing hordes of Zionism.” This is a moment where an opportunity for nuance was missed that could have highlighted the realities of Arab culture. There is a lack of understanding of the trademark dark humor that centers truth which Arabs often use to cope with traumatic events. A culturally specific interpretation would have allowed space for this to be what it is: a humorous moment intended to humanize Qurie. In this moment and throughout the play, Qurie, a high ranking Palestinian official, is unable to control his temper, including at the sight of the first Israeli delegate he’s ever met face to face. This confirms stereotypes Jack Shaheen discovered after evaluating how Arabs were portrayed in over 900 American films to identify patterns and the content of stereotypes, finding that Arab men were portrayed as “brute murderers”, “religious fanatics” “oil-rich dimwits” and “abusers of women.”
Many of Hassan Asfour’s (Amro Salama) sparse lines illustrate a totalitarian perspective. “You should have killed those four hundred. That would have sent us a message…. You do not believe in your cause enough to do what must be done. That is your weakness,“ is shouted across the metaphoric isle in malicious anger, reconfirming biases about Arabs that have long been cultivated in American media, and notoriously American theatre.
Within the script itself and in interviews with Rogers (one with Bowling in the program and one in Politico Mag), there is a notion that Rogers’ goal with Oslo was not to “be accurate” or educate people about the conflict, nor pass judgement on what happened, but to remain impartial. Yet that is decidedly not what happens in the text as it is riddled with Rogers’ own unconscious biases about both Palestinians and Israelis.
In an interview with Nick Bowling in the history insert of the program, Rogers says, “This would be the rough equivalent of secretly getting members of the Obama Administration and Al-Qaeda to break bread together and forge personal bonds.” These parallel lines drawn between the Obama Admin being the State of Israel and Al-Qaeda being the PLO shows blatant favoritism, by projecting Israel as the more relatable first-world government and continuing to draw a dehumanizing connection between Palestinian leadership and the terrorist organization that elicits the most visceral reaction from Americans. This is not the only account of imbalance: we spend more time on stage with Israeli advocates; they have more fleshed out characters, backstories, complicated arcs, and are drawn as parallels with the Norweigan characters.
The Palestinians remain two-dimensional, are consistently left out of conversations, and treated by the rest of the characters as easily angered. They are portrayed as threats who might “kill us in our sleep”, and jokingly introduced as “Terrorist #1 and Terrorist #2” by the protagonist Larsen. This further places the characters of Oslo into the narrow box in which Middle Eastern Americans are already confined. While there are undoubtedly harmful Jewish stereotypes as well, overall there is significantly more visibility and representation for the other cultures, races, & religions in this show. The correlation between stereotypical representation and the islamophobia that inspires hate crimes is real, and dangerous unless it is actively worked against.
Rogers’ play and Bowling’s production is a white savior play without the self examination at best, and at worst, cultural appropriation through the lens of extreme privilege. Most of the spoken lines in Arabic are incomprehensible and the Palestinians’ generic “Aladdin Accent” throughout the show was noticeably distracting to any Arabic speakers. Artistically, those moments of language were clumsily handled and the effect was a general wash of anger aiming to pass for authentic to everyone else in the room. It should be noted that there is no language translator or language consultant credited in the playbill or on the website. Use of language, or lack thereof, is one of many ways this specific production uses Arab culture, ongoing trauma, and music (love song Oul Tani Keda by Lebanese pop singer Nancy Ajram played right before Act Two — an out of place and awkward selection for a play about Palestine and Israel) for the sake of high art while simultaneously telling Arab audience members: this play might be about you but it is definitely not for you. In the same vein, the “color blind casting” distracts from the story. The center of the play’s conflict requires a color conscious eye and the application of specific language skills.
An Arab actor plays white Norwegian and American characters, while one of the Arab characters is played by a South Asian actor in a show where the central conflicts are about race, culture and nationalism. This promotes a monolithic view of what Arabs should look like: White skin means white, brown skin means brown, and the only people who will notice the differences won’t matter as much as the question we are trying to ask. Bowling’s production tries in so many ways to create a world where one can take race out of the equation to get you to focus on “the bigger picture” or the theoretical “real important question”, but fails to make this a story for all audiences since a world devoid of race and how it impacts people’s lives is wholly unrealistic for people of color. It does not exist.
With Oslo, Timeline succeeds in telling a story inspired by history, but strips it of its culturally specific and nuanced context in an attempt to make the central conflict universal. It would have been interesting to use Oslo as an opportunity to connect their audience with today’s social and political issues considering the current presence of the very same conflict. It’s not in the past; it’s still happening, and we could be empowered to do something about it. Rogers & Bowling’s protagonist merely wants you to look back and admire the efforts made:
“We created a process. Seeing all this, is that not clear? A first step, without a road map. Mistakes and foolish choices—of course. Of course. But. We. Began. My friends, do not look at where we are; look behind you. See how far we have come! If we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred— how much further can we yet go?”
In the aforementioned interview with Politico, Playwright J.T. Rogers states “in the back of my head, I’ve been thinking for years, this is one of the things I wanted to write against, shall we say, was Israel-Palestine, because it’s so loaded, and it’s so extraordinary, and so painful. It has all the elements of great art, and great theater, great narrative storytelling.” A seemingly harmless sentiment many well meaning white artists express right before they appropriate another culture’s struggle in the name of great art. I hope the pain of those past and still living through the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on both sides, was loaded, extraordinary and painful enough to serve his career well. Having this not been his first time producing work in this vein, I invite J.T. to explore a production of Middle Eastern representation where POC suffering isn’t on display to further a white protagonist’s plot, specifically Lark Theatre’s Middle Eastern American Writers Lab happening now in New York.
As this is not the first nor likely the last time this will happen in Chicago, I encourage theatre-makers who are interested in producing Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) stories in the future to meet with organizers and leaders of the Chicago MENA community about how they can engage transparently with communities they seek to represent in the true spirit this play honors: a belief in human connection and friendship as the basis for fruitful discussion, debate, and growth.
Chicago Resources for producing stories about the Middle Eastern North African diaspora:
US Palestinian Community Network
BIAS ALERT: Arti Ishak is a biracial Middle Eastern and Asian American actor, writer and community organizer who works with The Chicago Inclusion Project and Muslim Writers Collective to advocate for equity and inclusion in Chicago art making. Founder of Rescripted Regina Victor collaborated with Timeline in this calendar year.
Bernard Balbot: Ron Pundak, Jan Egeland
Jed Feder: Uri Savir
Anish Jethmalani: Ahmed Qurie
Scott Parkinson: Terje Rod-Larsen
Ron E. Rains: Yair Hirschfeld, Shimon Peres
Amro Salama: Hassan Asfour
Bri Sudia: Mona Juul
Stef Tovar: Yossi Beilin
Bassam Abdelfattah: Trond Gunderson, German Husband
Julie Hart: Marianne Heiberg, Toril Grandal, German Wife, Swedish Hostess
Tom Hickey: Joel Singer
Victor Holstein: Thor Bjornevog, American Diplomat
David Parkes: Jonah Jorgen Hoist, Finn Grandal
Amro Salama: u/s Ahmed Qurie
Bassem Abdelfattah: u/s Uri Savir, Hassan Asfour
Bobby Bowman: u/s Ron Pundak, Jan Egeland, Johan Jorgen Hoist, Finn Grandal
Libby Conkle: u/s Mona Juul, Marianna Heiberg, Toril Grandal, German Wife, Swedish Hostess
Tom Hickey: u/s Yair Hirschfeld, Shimon Peres
Victor Holstein: u/s Joel Singer, Yossi Beilin
Mike Jimerson: u/s Terje Rod-Larsen, Trond Gunderson, German Husband, Thor Bjornevog, American Diplomant
Director: Nick Bowling
Playwright: J.T. Rogers
Eva Breneman: Dialect Designer
André J. Pluess: Sound Designer
Maren Robinson: Dramaturg
Mike Tutaj: Projections Designer
Deborah Blumenthal: Dramaturg
Katie Cordts: Wig Designer and Coordinator
Jesse Klug: Lighting Designer
Jeffrey D. Kmiec: Scenic Designer
Alka Nayyar: Associate Director
Jonathan Nook: Stage Manager
Christine Pascual: Costume Designer
Amy Peter: Properties Designer
Lauren Sheely: Assistant Director
Mary Zanger: Assistant Stage Manager
Gaby Labotka: Fight and Intimacy Director