On a mission to share a message of peace, a group of seven performers from the United States helped bring the story of Martin Luther King to stage, only to find their cause punctuated by violence.
The performers, who include my wife and two other Tampa Bay area artists, are part of the cast of Passages of Martin Luther King, which has been running for three weeks in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.
But a bombing at a bus stop in central Jerusalem on March 23 left the performers unsettled by the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Jerusalem's first fatal bombing in years.
Then on Monday, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, the violence struck closer to home for those of us involved with the play. Juliano Mer-Khamis, who created the theater where the play was held just days earlier, was shot to death in his car. Some said it was the first assassination of an artist during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Was the Martin Luther King play about nonviolence the last straw for extremists opposed to Mer-Khamis' push for peaceful resistance and use of the arts for expression? Or was the King play not related at all? No one is sure right now. But the murder has troubled the group.
"This is absolutely devastating," Jessica Re Phillips, one of the American performers, said after she was told of the shooting. Then she put her face in her hands.
Emotions have run deep over the past few weeks — laughter often gave way to tears and high-fives to consoling hugs — as the American performers joined members of the Palestinians National Theater to offer an alternative to violence through King's message of peace.
The play, written by Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor, is part of the U.S. Consulate's effort to promote nonviolence through cultural exchanges.
But Monday's fatal shooting meant more to this group than any incident in the escalating violence in the region. The series, which began with four shows in Jerusalem, has traveled throughout the West Bank. On March 27, it was performed on the stage of the Freedom Theater, which Mer-Khamis founded in 2006 in the Jenin refugee camp.
Mer-Khamis, an Israeli whose mother was a Jewish activist for Palestinian rights and father was a Palestinian Christian, had faced death threats before. He worked to promote peace and offer culture to youth in Jenin's refugee camp through the arts, which militants have opposed.
On Monday, the 52-year-old husband and father of three was shot by masked gunmen believed to be Palestinian militants, according to news reports.
The Americans, trying to process Mer-Khamis' death and the prospects for their final performance today, huddled in their hotel lobby.
"I think it becomes very, very dangerous when artists are taken out," said Mik Kuhlman, an actor from Seattle. "It's a whole other ballgame. If you stop speech and words, that's dangerous."