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A long road to understanding

Not long after Thanksgiving, a 24-year-old soul singer named P. Michael Williams got a message from a new friend on Facebook.

"I have decided to add you to the cast, based on your experience and (an) enthusiastic recommendation," the message read. "I look forward to working with you on this important venture."

The message came from Clayborne Carson, an avuncular Stanford University professor who happens to be the editor of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the world's authorities on the American civil rights movement.

Carson was looking for singers for his play Passages of Martin Luther King. The U.S. Department of State had asked him to bring the play's message of nonviolence to Jerusalem and the West Bank, where it would be performed by a combined cast of American and Palestinian actors.

Williams, a Tampa college student whose massive frame and faux diamond stud earrings remind people of American Idol's Ruben Studdard, was homeless and living in his car two years ago. He didn't even have a passport, much less the money to get one.

But someone who had performed in Passages before had recommended him to Carson, and Williams knew this wasn't an opportunity to pass up.

Which is how in February he came to be sitting in the front row of an empty Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg for the first rehearsal of Passages. He was listening to a woman sing the iconic civil rights lyrics "Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on, hold on . . . "

"These are freedom songs," the woman tells Williams and another singer. "It's very in your face. We are angry black people."

Truthfully, Williams didn't really feel angry. He was 7 years old in 1993 when Carson wrote Passages. The civil rights struggle, which the 66-year-old Carson had lived through, was distant history to him.

What Williams knew was singing. Singing had put him on stage with the likes of Aaron Neville. But it had never put much money in his pocket, which is how he had come to be homeless, sleeping in the backseat of a '97 Mercury Sable after his mother got sick and later died of breast cancer. That made him angry, but singing was always a joy.

In April, at the Newark airport, Williams and four other American members of the cast gathered for the first time before their flight to Israel. It wasn't long before they were singing.

"A passage to a dream, a passage to our destiny, a passage to peace . . . , " September Penn, 39, of Gulfport, sang, playing off the title of the project. "With faith and hope we believe, a passage to a dream . . ."

Williams joined in: "I have a dream, I have a dream . . ."

Peace in the Middle East? That would be nice, but what Williams really had his heart set on was riding a camel.

In March 2010, the U.S. Department of State sent Clay Carson to meet with Palestinian peace activists and share his perspective about civil rights and Martin Luther King. Cultural diplomacy already had been touted as a tool of President Barack Obama's administration, so the State Department embraced Carson's idea to bring his play to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It was a noble idea, but what hope was there that a play — even an acclaimed one — would help solve one of the world's longest-running and most intractable conflicts? How could a group of people, some of whom, like Williams, had never left the country, who didn't know the first thing about intifadas and settlements, about blockades and rocket attacks, hope to change hearts and minds in just three weeks?

In the end it would be just as much of an awakening for the cast members as for their audiences. Before the tour was done they would come face to face with civil rights abuses, as well as the fear that comes from living close to deadly political violence.

The flight to Israel presented some challenges for the travelers. Williams got into a small border war with the woman in Row 38C who wanted to push her seat all the way back.

But that friction was nothing compared with the welcome Steve Wilson, a Pinellas County PE coach and keyboardist for the play, received at passport control in Tel Aviv. Despite a letter of introduction from the U.S. Consulate, a security agent grilled Wilson for 30 minutes about why he had come to Israel.

By the time Wilson rejoined the others at baggage claim, he was too angry to speak.

Everyone was eager to put that awkward moment behind them and get down to singing. The first performance was scheduled in about a week. But they spent the first day in Jerusalem just listening. First came a safety briefing from the consulate, then a history lecture from the Palestinian owner of the hotel where they were staying.

Their heads were swimming with warnings ("Avoid public protests") and baffling insights into Jerusalem politics ("It's a salad, not a melting pot").

The last speaker was Kamel Elbasha, the director of the Palestinian National Theatre who would guide the production of Passages for the next three weeks. He explained that he's a Muslim who prays regularly but is married to a Christian. The black freedom movement is just as complicated to him, Elbasha said, as his life might sound to them.

"This black and white is something we don't understand in Palestinian culture," Elbasha told the singers. "We don't understand this issue. What we understand is racism."

It was a perplexing statement, but no more so than Elbasha's vision for Passages, which he had spent weeks adapting for an Arabic-speaking audience.

"It's theater, in theater, in theater," Elbasha said, smiling enigmatically.

What he meant was anyone's guess. Without a final script, though, the performers were forced to practice with a previous version.

September Penn, the music director, had grown up singing several of the songs at the Baptist church in her hometown in Virginia. Having performed in the play since 2005, she knew the arrangements well.

At a rehearsal the next day, she led the group: "Woke up this morning with my mind . . ."

"Stayed on Jesus . . . ," they joined in.

"Woke up this morning with my mind . . ."

"Stayed on freedom . . ."

"Walk . . . to freedom. Walk . . . to freedom."

"I want to open up on high energy," Penn told them. "This is the very first thing they're going to hear us sing."

Just then, a young woman joined the handful of hotel staffers peeking in on the practice as the chorus sang We Shall Overcome. The young woman applauded and then interrupted.

"You are welcome to a demonstration to end the occupation," she said.

"I thought we weren't supposed to go," Williams said, recalling the consulate's warning. "I'm not going."

As the woman rushed to the demonstration a couple of blocks from the hotel, the group resumed its rehearsal of songs that had stoked protest marches decades before.

The singers hurried past rifle-toting Israeli police on streets packed with Palestinian schoolchildren. They were anxious not to be late for the first full rehearsal.

In the smoke-filled main hall of Al Hakawati theater, Kamel Elbasha flicked his cigarette ashes onto the floor. Williams waved smoke from his face.

"Hi, I'm Yaz-meen," a woman with a heavy Palestinian accent said to blank stares. "Jasmine," she said matter-of-factly. Yasmine Elias Hammar was cast as the play's narrator.

"I'm playing Martin Luther King," said a dark-haired man with a thin mustache, extending his hand.

Elbasha interrupted the casual introductions.

"You will know each other in the coming days," he said.

On a table below the stage were copies of the final script, one stack in Arabic, the other in English.

It was the first time Carson and the singers had seen it. It was not what they expected.

"We are not less than Tunisians and Egyptians," an Arabic-speaking actor said into his cell phone in the opening scene. It was a reference to the recent revolutions in North Africa, decades out of place in a play from the '60s.

Ramzi Maqdisi, 31, a Palestinian playing a Palestinian actor portraying Martin Luther King, walked on stage smelling his shoe.

"Smells," he said in Arabic.

Mik Kuhlman, a 49-year-old American actor, had been hired by Elbasha to play the character of the director. She responded in English.

"What's this about shoes and smelling?" she said. "What do you know about Martin Luther King?"

In character, Maqdisi replied: He got f----- up the a-- being awarded the Nobel Prize in Oslo. They threw eggs on him in New York. He dated a lot of girls in Boston but didn't like any, and in the end he was trapped by Coretta. Poor man."

Aleta Hayes, a Stanford University dance instructor and chorus member, was shocked by the profane treatment of history she considered nearly sacred.

Kuhlman: "What else?"

Maqdisi: "His father used to be a priest, preaching God's words, and my father used to sit at Damascus Gate, enjoying the beauties that were created by God."

"This is not my play," Carson said, grimacing as he thumbed through the script.

Elbasha wasn't kidding. It was no longer Passages of Martin Luther King. Instead, the play was about Palestinians and Americans rehearsing for a performance of Passages of Martin Luther King.

Each new scene frustrated the Americans more.

Georgina Asfour, a Palestinian Christian playing Coretta Scott King, addressed her husband:

"Think of all that's happened since that day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and you agreed to lead the boycott movement."

A Palestinian actor, in character, interrupted: "Who's Rosa Parks?"

"Rosa Parks was a black woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man," Kuhlman, in character as the director, said. "She was arrested and her action was what sparked the civil rights movement in America."

"That's it?" The actor replied.

By the end of the rehearsal, the American singers were fuming. It seemed to them that the Palestinians had hijacked the play into a political statement about their own suffering and trivialized some of the most important moments of tof the civil rights movement.

"They just mocked Martin Luther King," Hayes said to Penn. "Somebody needs to say something."

Before the next full rehearsal, the Americans had a chance to cool off when the U.S. Consulate boarded them onto vans for a tour of the West Bank.

They passed through an Israeli checkpoint on their way to Bethlehem. Sami Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian and a protest leader, was the guide.

"We're fully committed to nonviolence," Awad said. "We believe that nonviolence is the only way. It's not just for borders. It's not just for agreements . . . There is serious trauma and fear that exists in the Jewish community and the Palestinian community."

Carson said of Awad: "This is a pioneer in the nonviolence movement."

Awad showed them what a landscape of trauma and fear looks like: barbed wire fences and warnings of "mortal danger," fights over precious water, pristine highways for Israelis and circuitous routes dotted with checkpoints for Palestinians.

In the minds of the singers, it all evoked apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow America.

"Just imagine roads for blacks and roads for whites," Awad said.

In the town of Beit Jala, the vans pulled up to the home of Mitri Michael Ghenaim. In 1992, the Israeli military had claimed his land. Concrete walls dozens of feet high now stood on the property he once owned. Ghenaim could almost touch the wall from his porch.

"The way they deal with us is confining us to these, what I call prison camps," Awad said. "Eighty percent of the population lives behind fences and walls in the West Bank."

Carson turned to the group: "These are billions and billions of your tax dollars," he said of the walls. "It would take billions of dollars to take these down."

"This is just so ugly. Oh, my God," Aleta Hayes screamed to no one in particular. "I just can't stand it."

"It's like nothing they can do," Williams said, choking back tears. "It's like there's almost no hope. I would never have expected to see anything like this."

The African-American singers felt they were beginning to understand the Palestinian plight, but they still wondered: Do the Palestinians really understand us?

The day before the play opened, Carson gave a lecture to 25 students and faculty at the Palestinian Al Quds University in Jerusalem. It's an environment that he had always felt comfortable in and it allowed him the chance to share his own experience in the civil rights movement dating back to his college days.

"We never saw ourselves as followers of Martin Luther King," Carson said. "We saw Martin Luther King as following us."

Like the black freedom struggle, Carson said he thought a sustainable peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would come through focusing on the human rights concerns in the conflict rather than on a two-state solution — one Israeli and one Palestinian.

"But the question is, what is the effective means?" a member of the audience asked.

Carson responded: "Every mass struggle yields elements of violence and elements of nonviolence. Nelson Mandela himself moved from one position to another . . .

"At the end of my play, Martin Luther King gives a sermon. All of us has within us good and bad. We're always on a continuum that goes from violent to nonviolent people."

But those who want to build an effective mass movement, Carson said, must look at how violence tends to drive away potential supporters, such as women and children.

"The higher the level of violence, the fewer the people to execute that strategy," Carson said. "What nonviolence does is open up the opportunity for expanding that movement."

Songs were added to the play, Carson told his audience, because music brings people together.

"It gives a sense that you are part of a community," he said. "By singing with other people, (activists) gained confidence."

The singers were not confident.

"It was awful. You know that," Elbasha told the cast after the final dress rehearsal.

"Was it bad good, or bad bad?" Steve Wilson, the keyboardist, asked.

It was bad. Missed lines. Missed cues. And the play was running almost two hours with no intermission.

Elbasha wasn't discouraged.

"I like it when a rehearsal is awful," he said. "That means the show will be great."

The next night, the packed house greeted the new opening lines with laughter, the singing with applause. But it wasn't long before a handful of people walked out.

Some thought the play was too long. Some thought it was too Christian. Some thought it was just too much. So Elbasha changed the script again overnight.

The next day, a few hours before the performers were to take the stage for the second show, a bomb exploded at a bus stop. It was the first fatal bombing in Jerusalem since 2006. A 59-year-old woman died and dozens of civilians were injured. The American performers had been in that area the day before.

"Do you think we're safe?" asked singer Jessica Ré Phillips. "What should we do?"

The play went on. But there was an explosion coming inside the theater. Carson was troubled by the new changes.

Martin Luther King's final church sermon — "If you haven't found something worth dying for, you aren't fit to be living" — had moved from the end of the play to the beginning.

"What was that?" Carson asked out loud after the lights went up.

"It will be different tomorrow," Elbasha said.

That wasn't what Carson wanted to hear. He called for a meeting.

After the next day's matinee, in a cramped office above the theater, Carson, Elbasha, a handful of the Palestinian actors and almost all of the American performers gathered around a small table.

"The problem is not solved by moving my ending to the beginning," Carson, visibly disturbed, said. "It can be structured in other ways."

"A few songs could be eliminated or shortened . . . but I disagree that they are too Christian for a Palestinian audience," he said. "I would not be here in Jerusalem if I did not believe King's message could be accepted by a Palestinian audience."

Elbasha stayed quiet, so Asfour defended the changes. Contrary to what the Americans might think, she said, the changes were designed to help the audience receive unfamiliar information, including King's last speech.

"It's all important things that he wrote," she said. "The problem is also with the structure. It's very academic for them."

After an hour, a suggestion came from an unexpected quarter.

Williams proposed leaving the speech at the beginning and repeating the lines about having something to die for at the end.

"That would tie it all together," he said.

"I think P. Michael has suggested a possible compromise," Carson said. "This has been too good of an experience to have anyone going away feeling it didn't work."

Later, Carson, smiling, told Williams: "You deserve the Nobel Peace Prize."

Shortly after the script was finalized, Williams got his wish to ride a camel. On a day trip to the Dead Sea, he bounced across a tourist shop parking lot on a camel named Pistachio.

"I'm so happy," Williams said.

Passages finished its run in Jerusalem and headed to six cities in the West Bank — Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Hebron and Ramallah.

The American and Palestinian performers traveled together on a charter bus. The 20- and 30-somethings chatted in the back while the older ones filled the front seats.

Yasmine Hammar, the play's narrator, commandeered the bus' microphone to imitate a tour guide:

"Over here we have mountains," she deadpanned. "And over here are some rocks and olive trees."

Williams was smitten.

"You should come back with me to the States," he told her.

"My father would kill you," Hammar said with a laugh.

In Jenin, Ramzi Maqdisi played more of a formal tour guide, explaining the history of the refugee camp where the play would be performed. He spoke about an infamous attack by the Israeli military in 2002 that Palestinians call a massacre and Israelis call a justified pursuit of terrorists.

When he was 17, Maqdisi had started a radio station here to voice opposition to the Israeli occupation. His broadcasts landed him in jail for a year.

Maqdisi was still bitter, especially about the role the United States has played in support of Israel. But the American singers have given him a new outlook.

"Before this, I didn't want to go to the United States," Maqdisi told them. "But meeting you all, I realize I have to separate the government from the people."

The phone rang about 9:30 p.m. in September Penn's room. It was Mik Kuhlman.

She wouldn't say what was on her mind until she was sitting on the edge of Penn's bed minutes later.

Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder of the theater in Jenin where they had performed Passages days earlier, had been killed that afternoon. He was shot five times in his car by a masked gunman. His son and the nanny were in the backseat unharmed. Palestinian militants were suspected because they didn't like Mer-Khamis' efforts to train youth in nonviolence.

Penn wasn't sure how to take the news. The assassination was a rebuke to everything the play stood for. She worried that her performers were now in danger.

"This isn't about us," Kuhlman said. "This is about the Palestinians. This was a targeted assassination."

"I'm ready to go home," Williams said when Penn told him moments later.

It had been a long trip for a young man still reeling from the chastening he received for overacting during recent performances and for spending foolishly on trinkets. Now an assassination?

But everyone agreed to go on stage for the final show.

Al Kasabah Theater in Ramallah was only half-full. Extra plainclothes security officers patrolled the theater.

When the lights dimmed, half a dozen men in front of the stage raised posters to their faces. The image was of Mer-Khamis.

Elbasha made a final plea to the performers:

"I am wanting you to keep the show as a memory of Juliano," he said. "Have fun. Enjoy it. The most important thing for Juliano was to enjoy life."

Williams did. In the opening of his solo he broke from the traditional gospel style with one of his signature jazzy flourishes:

"Precious Lord, take my hand . . ."

It was Martin Luther King's favorite hymn.

The rest of the chorus joined in.

"Lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn . . ."

Williams could hardly believe it was over. "We're done," he said to Penn, grinning. "We can go home. We get to go home."

Not so fast. No one arranged transportation for the performers to get from Ramallah through the checkpoint back into Jerusalem. The only option was a public bus with a skull and crossbones in the back window.

American performer Jessica Ré Phillips was agitated. She had forgotten her passport at the hotel. What if she couldn't get through the checkpoint?

At the checkpoint, everyone was asked to get off. It turned out the driver wasn't allowed through. "Why did they put us on that bus?" they asked.

The group, tired and hungry, huddled in the biting chill.

"Is this a trick? Is this so we can know what it feels like?" Penn said.

"It's okay," Maqdisi assured her. "We're going to call a cab."

Soon a minibus with just enough seats arrived.

"Blonds up front," Maqdisi said, looking at Kuhlman and a documentary filmmaker with the group. Blond hair means you're not likely to be Palestinian. And "take the scarves off," Maqdisi said to the women who had bundled up in the cold.

When the soldier waved the minibus through, the van erupted in cheers.

It had been 24 days on the road and the only thing on everyone's mind was getting home.

They were exhausted — physically, emotionally, creatively, you name it.

Three weeks earlier they had arrived in a strange country bearing a message of nonviolence they thought no one could possibly disagree with. They were dismayed to learn that the message was so threatening that people were willing to kill a man in front of his son to stop its spread.

They had come as musicians, ready to perform a script set in stone. They had learned that they were diplomats, too, and that every word and gesture was open to negotiation.

Above all, they learned that they could not leave untouched.

They arrived at Ben Gurion Airport four hours early. It almost wasn't early enough. This time, not only did Wilson, the keyboardist, get a hard time, but so did Williams. They strip-searched both of them.

But the trip had changed Wilson. "I understand. They're concerned about bombs. They're trying to keep us safe."

"What about P. Mike?" Penn asked.

No one saw him when the airline called for final boarding. They boarded the plane and prayed Williams would make it in time.

They found Williams in his seat, choking back tears.

"They put it in my underwear," Williams mouthed, referring to a bomb detector.

Two months after landing back in Tampa, a photo album arrived in Williams' mailbox. Carson had assembled it from the photos he had taken during the trip.

When Williams opened it tears began to well up, followed by a smile. With each picture, he thought of moments of simple joy — the singing, the ride on the camel — and the moments of discomfort — when he had to confront his own naivete about his profession and about the Palestinian conflict.

"I gained so much from this," Williams said. "I will definitely be back."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

About this story

Ivan Penn, the Times' consumer affairs reporter, is married to September Penn. He did not receive any money from the U.S. Consulate for travel expenses, all of which were born by him and the Times. Penn wrote about a performance of Passages of Martin Luther King in China in 2007. To read that story, go to links.tampabay.com.

A long road to understanding 07/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 12:39pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

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