Let's Paint the Separation Fence!

A fascinating mix of a Japanese director, Palestinian actors, tales of the separation fence and an Internet site make for a unique play showing this month at the Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah.

"Abu Yo" is the nickname given to Japanese director Noboru Tsubaki by members of the Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah, after his son Yo, according to common Arab practice. What is uncommon about Tsubaki is the great effort that the well-known Japanese artist made to get to Ramallah.

He came to direct, and especially to build the set for "The Wall - Stories Under Occupation 2" with George Ibrahim, who founded the theater in 1970. The play is about the structure called the "separation fence" or the "security fence" by Israelis, and the "wall," the "racist wall" or the "apartheid wall" by Palestinians.

The play is a reinterpretation of a play previously produced at Al-Kasaba, "Stories under Occupation," although it's essentially a new production.

The first play won awards at the Cairo Theater Festival and toured theaters around the world, including Tokyo. Tsubaki was impressed by the Tokyo production, and obtained funding for the theater group to mount the new play at the Tokyo Festival last March. He decided to come to Ramallah to build a grand, new set for the play.

He came here last year and lived with the actors, who rewrote the script for the new play. Tsubaki created an inspiring new backdrop while observing the ongoing construction of the real separation fence.

The play examines life alongside the separation fence and the suffering of nearby residents.

The actors, all Palestinians, employ various Palestinian accents to represent different segments of the population. They are positioned next to the wall to tell small, personal stories while segments of the wall move and replace one another.

In this production, the actors are primarily storytellers. Their goal is rouse the audience and inspire identification with the story rather than with its narrator. The storyteller (el-hakawati) has always been a fundamental element in classic Arab theater, but this play offers a fresh combination of the traditional story with an original set.

The fence backdrop, designed by Tsubaki, changes to fit the context of each story. The audience hears of the schoolteacher, anxious to show off her new dress, who cannot get to school because of the fence; a young girl named Leila, longs to visit her grandmother, but the path is rife with "wolves" and soldiers; the groom cannot get to the house he toiled to build; and the fashion designer, whose designs were shown everywhere before the fence was built - is now forced to peddle rags to earn a living.

A particularly powerful scene portrays a freed prisoner who tries to return to jail after seeing how everyone on the other side of the fence is no more than a prisoner.

The Japanese director did not rest on his laurels after the play succeeded at the Tokyo Festival. He launched an Internet site to make it possible for audiences to express their opinions about the separation fence. On this unique site, users can download images of the fence, use their computer drawing tool to paint it or write on it, and upload their creation to the site.

A glimpse of the site, called Radikal Dialogue Project (http://anj.or.jp/una/), reveals that most of the new images displayed on the site were produced by young, Japanese who attended the play. The site creates a context for reactions and in conjunction with the play, it transforms the separation fence into an international cultural icon.

This, Tsubaki has used the medium of the Internet, efficiently and successfully, to try to project the significance of the separation fence to a much wider audience than the play ever could reach.