Reflections on “Beautiful Resistance” by Laura Weis

My friend Laura Weis wrote the following about a play we saw together in July in Xavier Hall on SLU’s campus. The playwright and lead actor was Magan WIles, one of my former students and one of my ongoing teachers.

I saw this play on Saturday, July 12, 2008.  It was called Beautiful Resistance, and the performance captivated me from start to finish.  It prompted recollection of events and emotions in my own life, while it shook me with its portrayal of a situation I’ve not experienced and can barely imagine.  It educated and it exposed.  It acknowledged and challenged assumptions; admitted and confronted fears; and agonized over and embraced not knowing all the answers. It was a multi-sensory experience, visual and voice, movement and music, and it both communicated to and invited response from the audience.  It resonated.

The experience began the moment you walked in the door and joined a slow-moving line to wait to obtain your passport (ticket) and get past the checkpoint (into the theatre).  Watched from above and intimidated along the way, we playgoers were not in control of our fates.  How to react?  I saw bewilderment, solemn recognition, a few giggles (promptly silenced), willing compliance, and a bit of attitude.  Real or imagined, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping tension as people glanced over their shoulders, unsure of the rules, and whispered acknowledgement of shared uncertainty about what came next.  It was effective.  A mere glimpse of an unfathomable, unknown reality thousands of miles away.

Once settled in our seats (not without some forced, arbitrary reassigning by aggressive Israeli soldiers), members of the audience were invited to offer instances from their lives when they felt certain emotions – intense anger, absolute joy, total helplessness – to be interpreted through improvised movement and music by members of the cast.  The technique, known as “playback theatre,” was woven into the beginning and ending of the performance, as a means to honor the experiences of the audience in tandem with the experiences of those portrayed in the play.  

At this point, we met Magan, who stepped onstage to offer a time when she felt totally helpless.  As she swirled away from life’s familiarities and comforts, mind racing, we were transported with her to the West Bank, where, upon arrival, her eyes were pulled open, creeeaaak.  She didn’t minimize her fears or deny that she held certain assumptions prior to and even during her travels.  And she did not seem to try to manipulate her response to her new circumstances in light of what she’d read, been taught, or been told in preparation for the trip, which I found refreshing.  She just experienced it.

Throughout the play, we saw Magan as an observer, documenting with her camera; as a friend, laughing and conversing with ____; as an activist, confronting Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint.  We encountered creative coping and cautious optimism, and we saw the tragic impact of ongoing violence and degradation on individuals.  We met a moonwalking Hamas soldier, who, we learn, was later killed, but left behind a poignant message of hope for the future of Palestine.  We witnessed a birthday celebration and girl talk interrupted by the sounds of gunfire and a momentary admission, “I hate this life.”

It was easy to feel discouraged after the performance, with its unanswered questions and uncertain ending.  It’s unlikely all parties involved will be happy or satisfied.  Some people will say they have everyone’s best interests at heart, and that their plan, their solution, is best.  Others will know better, but may not be listened to or even asked.  So how does this story end?  For the people of Palestine and Israel?  For the audience?  For me?  As the use of playback theatre illustrated, we all have experiences to draw upon and a role to play in figuring it out.

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