Arts Desk

Theater J’s Almost-Scandalous Return to Haifa

To Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, the first attempt to bring an adaptation of the late Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani's novella Return to Haifa to American stages was stampeded by a "bull in a china shop." That's how Roth described Jason Southerland, his former opposite number at the Next Theatre Company of Evanston, Ill., who tried to collaborate with Theater J on building a production of the story of a Palestinian couple exiled in 1948 returning two decades later to their old house and finding it inhabited by a couple who survived the Holocaust and raised the son the Palestinian couple left behind.

Kanafani, killed by a car bomb in 1972, was one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine but also with Return to Haifa a rare Palestinian author who treated Jewish characters humanely. That's how the Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon saw it in 2008 when he penned a Hebrew-language adaptation authorized by the Kanafani estate and staged it at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre.

How Return to Haifa eventually made it to Theater J is a bit of a twisted story.

At a restaurant in 2007, Gaon read Roth a draft of his play. "I committed to producing the project right then and there," Roth told me today. A year later, Southerland, as reported by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, saw the Cameri production while in Israel for a theater conference. But this is no tale of theatrical serendipity—the two directors had never met and producing an English version of Return to Haifa would require a new translation with new adaptation rights issued by Kanafani's executors. Southerland called Roth and suggested that Next Theatre Company and Theater J collaborate on making it happen, with the stipulation that in return for staging a Theater J production of Return to Haifa in Evanston, Southerland be allowed to come to Washington and direct another show at Theater J.

"I didn't know Southerland at all," Roth said. "He said he would come and produce the direct a show in Washington and I was like, 'Dude, I've never even met you and you're going to come produce direct a play here?'"

Roth was interested in an English language production of Gaon's play, which while retaining the overall structure of Kanafani's original text takes a few liberties, most notably in making the Jewish couple the parents of a son killed in the Holocaust. (There is no such detail in the original novella.) But Kanafani's family wanted any English-language adaptation to be a fresh translation from the original Arabic, not filtered through a third language. Without securing English-language rights, Theater J had to back off. Southerland, however, went rogue.

The short version of the ensuing disaster in Chicago goes something like this: Told by the Kanafanis and Gaon that he could not adapt Return to Haifa for an American audience, Southerland commissioned a local playwright to write a separate version of Return to Haifa, which opened in Evanston last February with the same title and same dialogue. Speaking to the Tribune last year, Roth called the production "completely brazen." Lawsuits were threatened, finger-pointing ensued, and Southerland was gone by May.

"Every bad rule violation was committed there," Roth told me. But the potential Next-Theater J collaboration on Return to Haifa was off the table. "I love the Next Theatre people and I know their new artistic director," Roth said. But he still wanted to extend the life of Gaon's play.

The production of Return to Haifa that will be performed at Theater J beginning Jan. 15 is exactly that—Gaon's adaptation of Kanafani's novella performed by the original cast and director (Sinai Peter) of the Cameri Theatre production. Roth's only creative addition is that unlike the Tel Aviv show in which the entire play was done in Hebrew, he encouraged the company to perform scenes between Palestinian characters in Arabic. For those scenes, Gaom's Hebrew script has been given an authorized translation back into Arabic. So that it is not lost on its English-speaking audience, the entire work will be presented with surtitles from a straight, unedited translation of the script.

"That came with full permission of the estate," Roth assured me.

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