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The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine. Ola Johansson and Johanna Wallin, eds. New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2018. Pp. 417.

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The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in occupied Palestine gained international notoriety in 2011 when an unidentified masked assailant shot and killed founding co-director Juliano Mer Khamis. The son of a Palestinian-Christian father and Israeli-Jewish mother, actor-director Mer Khamis had sidelined a thriving stage and screen career in Israel to help establish The Freedom Theatre in 2005. After his death, playwright Naomi Wallace commented that most obituaries of Mer Khamis in the U.S. and Europe emphasized his dual Israeli-Palestinian identity and sketched an image of him as “a kind of vague universal artist, working through some form of vague theatre for some kind of vague liberal freedom” (58). These notices, in short, whitewashed his radicalism, in particular his unequivocal commitment to social and economic justice and resistance to the occupation. In The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine, editors Ola Johansson and Johanna Wallin reclaim Mer Khamis’ unique legacy and document the company from inception to the present-day. Most remarkably, their volume brings to light The Freedom Theatre’s deep embeddedness within its local community even while situating it within a comparative international framework. The book captures the radical internationalist consciousness – and broad political relevance – of this quintessentially Palestinian cultural institution.

Johansson and Wallin organize their volume around five loosely thematic sections: “The Beginning, Arna, and Juliano Mer Khamis,” “Cultural Resistance,” “Performing Arts,” “International Perspectives,” and “The Future.” Each section culls different forms of documentation and analysis, including academic articles, case studies, interviews, speeches, personal reflections, and theatre reviews. Taken together, this collage of diverse voices offers a penetrating account of The Freedom Theatre as a complex grassroots organization—at once a thriving production house, a rigorous arts school, and a lively community center. Johansson and Wallin are clearly invested in creating a platform for members of the theatre— artists, teachers, graduates, and staff— to narrate their own story. They contextualize these first-hand reflections on the theatre’s history, philosophy and practice with academic essays on closely related topics. The section on “Cultural Resistance” includes reflections on the creative activism of The Freedom Theatre alongside articles on the wider political economy of the West Bank, with an emphasis on how the neoliberal transformation of recent decades has challenged Palestinian civic institutions. “Performing Arts” connects narratives on the company’s artistic and pedagogical practices with historical essays on the rich tradition of anti-colonial and anti-elitist performance in Palestine, going back to the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate. “International Perspectives” positions the theatre within a comparative global landscape. International artists and scholars, who have collaborated with The Freedom Theatre, juxtapose the company’s work with examples of cultural activism from around the world, including street theatre in India, community-based theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Occupy Wall Street in the United States.

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