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Theatre Review

PlayMakers Repertory Company: PR2's Debut Show, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, Stars PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj

September 15, 2007 - Chapel Hill, NC:

PlayMakers Repertory Company now has its own second-stage series, which it has pegged PRC2 and features small shows created in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, which opened when the company and the Dramatic Arts Department moved into the Performing Arts Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

PRC2 will be an annual presentation of three plays, most of which will be one-acts, in order to facilitate a “second act” which is an audience-participation discussion of what was just seen. The first show, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing by Raja Shehadeh, ran Sept. 12-16; each subsequent show will run for five performances, Wednesday through Sunday, and this season’s shows are already lined up. More on that aspect below.

PRC’s producing artistic director, Joseph Haj, performed the opening show; he was joined artistically by well-known creative team members of PRC as well as director Ellen Hemphill, a Theater Studies at Duke professor and professional actor and director. But she is best known in the Triangle as the managing/artistic director of the Archipelago Theatre, a Chapel Hill-based professional theater that specializes in their own original works.

Haj played Palestinian author and human-rights attorney Raja Shehadeh, in an adaptation written by Scottish playwright David Greig of the Shehadeh’s When the Bulbul Stopped Singing. It is the activist’s first-hand account of what went on inside Ramallah, Palestine, during the Israeli siege, or “Operation Defensive Shield,” March 29 through April 28, 2002. Shehadeh lives in Ramallah, along with his wife, Penney; his brother, Samud; and Samud’s wife and two children. His brother’s house was invaded and held the entire month; and quiet, clandestine phone conversations were the only means of learning of his brother’s fate at the hands of the Israeli army.

Haj did a truly splendid job of recreating a man whose English is a second language. His flawless Palestinian accent and quiet, underplayed characterization only served to emphasize the tense and terrible events that he relayed. He was hardly recognizable in a full black beard and olive skin; and the power within his character—which seemed only held in check by an iron will—flowed palpably. In a segment of the work in which he told of a shopkeeper whom he observed, sunning himself outside his shop between two Israeli tanks, Raja’s pride at the war-weary acceptance of his countryman was real and heartfelt.

Given that PRC2 has been created to examine the stories of the “large and diverse” world of people living in Chapel Hill, we cannot comment on this first of a series without including the events of the “second act,” a panel-led discussion facilitated by Colin E. Rustin, Jr. and a four-member panel including Diane Gilboa, artistic director of Theatre Or of Durham; Nadia Yaqub, a UNC professor of Arabic Language, and of Palestinian descent; Marty Rosenbluth, a third-year law student who has worked with Shehadeh and Amnesty International; and Haley Koch, a UNC undergraduate who organized the on-campus group SPEAC (Solidarity with Palestine through Education and Action at Carolina). The “dialogue” often became heated as both sides of the international debate made their feelings known. But the panel and some few patrons kept the conversation on track as we all did our best to see what the “other side” had to say and what they felt. The play itself was only a little over an hour long, and PRC devoted another full hour to discussion afterwards. It is a new and quite inspiring direction for theater in the Triangle, and its continuing success may prove far more than just a new venue in Chapel Hill theater.

When the Bulbul Stopped Singing concluded its run Sunday night. But the program includes coming events in PRC2, with more information on two new plays set for 2008. Next up, on Jan. 9-13, is Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride, a one-woman show she performs herself, which depicts, simultaneously, her father’s trip to Auschwitz to visit his parents’ gravesite, and a day she spends with him at the amusement park, where the main draw, a huge roller-coaster, is a 2.5 minute ride. The work is designed to evoke both humor and horror on a fairly equal basis, and this is an OBIE Award-winning performance.

Then, the PRC2 trio concludes April 23-27 with Witness to an Execution, written and performed by Mike Wiley, who last season presented his own work, Dar He, to Chapel Hill with critical and popular amazement and acclaim. This new work reveals the private stories of those members of the penal system who must witness the execution of death row inmates in the infamous Texas prison system. It is, like its PRC2 predecessors, a multimedia and multicharacter presentation that promises to provoke an honest questioning of the death penalty in the United States in general and Texas in particular.