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Antiwar theater and social action: Producing Prophecy

When playwright Karen Malpede found it impossible to find a producer for her anti-war play, she reached out to activist peace groups. The alliance has resulted in Prophecy getting a run in May and June writes Caron Atlas.

How do you produce a pro-peace play in a country that is at war? How do you put positive Arab characters on stage at a time when negative stereotypes abound? How do you speak about the emotional costs, and loss of life, of the current wars to a nation that wants to forget?

Playwright and Park Slope Food Coop member Karen Malpede asked these questions as she tried to find a producer for Prophecy, “a fierce yet funny American anti-war play.”

In spite of six developmental readings at major theater institutions in the U.S., a London production with excellent reviews and well-known actors such as Kathleen Chalfant, George Bartenieff and André De Shields, the play was considered too perilous to produce. One producer called it “too risky.”

Another, who was considering the play after a positive conversation with the audience following a reading, backed down after receiving “negative emails.” Malpede and her partner Bartenieff, who has years of producing experience, were not to be deterred.

They believed that this was exactly the right moment for the play to be seen in the U.S. If they couldn’t get it produced the conventional way, they would use their creativity and network of allies to get it done.

New York Theater Workshop offered its small theater at no cost for a short run of the play, a tremendous help. The Prophecy team turned to people who had attended the readings who wanted to see the play produced.

Employing the techniques of a grassroots campaign, they held house parties and dinners, and wrote letters and emails, building a resource of deeply committed audience support.

Expanding this strategy, they engaged allies in the peace and social justice community to create “a mutually reciprocal connection between art and social action.”

Groups were offered the opportunity to purchase the 60-seat house as a fund-raiser or theater party during the play’s May 27-June 20 New York City run. As of March, partners include Code Pink, War Resisters League, Friends of Jenin Freedom Theater, Peace Action, Iraq Veterans Against the War, ACLU-NJ and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Not only is this generating critical up-front financial support for the production, it is also offering the activist groups a play that speaks to their concerns and stimulates dialogue and action.

Says Jose Vasquez of Iraq Veterans Against the War, “Art, in general, and theater, in particular, have tremendous potential for healing and catharsis.

We in the veterans community understand the power of storytelling. Our narratives shape our realities. We look forward to sponsoring an evening of Prophecy for our members and supporters. Our goal is to engage people in meaningful dialogues about the human costs of war and occupation.”

For Liz Roberts of the War Resisters League, the play offers “a generous gift—to be able to come together as a community, to experience the poignant and personal ways that war affects peoples lives.

I find that art, more than all of the best-worded books, pamphlets, articles and news shows, has the power to ignite people to act…. of cutting through logic and directly pulling on a person’s humanity, tugging at them to feel, to grieve, to wake up and to find their own agency, their own voice. Our goal is to engage people in meaningful dialogues about the human costs of war and occupation.”

Malpede is delighted with the response. She wrote the play to move people, both in the theater and afterwards. “The greatest sin in the theater is boredom; I want to enliven people—to send them home with more energy and richer imaginings than they had when they arrived. The characters all transcend themselves and that affects the audience. The audience therefore is also more open at the end of the play.”

Adds actor Kathleen Chalfant, “It gives you time to consider another possibility without ever simplifying the complexities of the political positions that are taken.”

This isn’t the first time theater and social movements have benefited one another. The civil rights movement, for example, supported the Free Southern Theater (FST) as an integral part of movement building.

When the movement no longer existed, FST buried itself in a New Orleans jazz funeral that contained the seeds of its rebirth—in new social movements and committed theater. Prophecy continues this vision.

Support Prophecy by purchasing advance tickets. The show runs May 27-June 30 at the East Fourth Street Theater (Manhattan). Some shows include talkbacks with public intellectuals. The June 8 talkback with Noam Chomsky is open to ticket-holders of any performance. Chris Hedges, Laura Flanders and David Swanson will also lead discussions.

Caron Atlas writes for After Downing St and the Park Slope Food Coop.


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