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When a play isn’t just a play, against the backdrop of war

The Belfry Theatre in Victoria has pulled ‘The Runner’ from its 2024 schedule

Latest News
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

When a play isn’t just a play, against the backdrop of war

The Belfry Theatre in Victoria has pulled ‘The Runner’ from its 2024 schedule

Photo: Sidney Coles / Capital Daily
Photo: Sidney Coles / Capital Daily
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

When a play isn’t just a play, against the backdrop of war

The Belfry Theatre in Victoria has pulled ‘The Runner’ from its 2024 schedule

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When a play isn’t just a play, against the backdrop of war
Photo: Sidney Coles / Capital Daily

Sometimes timing and circumstance dictate that stagers of films and plays make choices that are difficult. Against the backdrop of the recent eruption of the Israel-Gaza war that has seen more than 1,200 Israelis and more than 22,000 Palestinians killed since Oct. 7, the Belfry has decided to pull the controversial play, The Runner, from its 2024 programming.  

The play titled The Runner was scheduled to open at the Belfry in March 2024. It was written by Toronto-based playwright Christopher Morris, and is a one-man piece about a member of ZAKA—an Israeli volunteer-based non-government rescue and recovery organization, whose mission is underscored by the priorities of the Hippocratic oath and Jewish burial laws that demand that all human remains are collected and identified within 24 hours. 

In the wake of the decision, Morris has said in a statement, that he is “saddened that people in Victoria—especially those with very divergent views and those traumatized by the atrocities in Israel and Gaza—will be denied the opportunity to come together in a theatre to explore their common humanity, share their grief and perhaps discover a flicker of solace and hope.”

Acted entirely from a working, 24-foot treadmill, the staging of the play represents the internal churnings of protagonist Jacob as he struggles—morally and personally—in his role as a ZAKA runner. The central “problem” of the play is the decision Jacob makes to save a young Palestinian woman—referred to consistently in the play as the “Arab girl”—instead of recovering the nearby body of an Israeli soldier, whom she may or may not have killed. Ultimately, he opts to provide medical care for the girl, gives her CPR and gets her to a hospital. She is later arrested. 

In late December, a group of diverse citizens and the authors of Substack Sumud1948, voiced their concerns to the Belfry in an open letter about how the young Palestinian woman is portrayed throughout Morris’s script and argued that The Runner “effortlessly chronicles the historical collective suffering of Jewish people in a way that humanizes them and references their spirituality, while its Palestinian characters are given almost no redeeming qualities, no rich cultural heritage, no deep connection to the land for the audience to empathize with.”  

They asked that the play be pulled from the theatre’s repertoire because “it is evident that, in his own words and writings, that [Morris’s] bias is in favour of the humanity of Israeli settlers at the expense of Indigenous Palestinians.” In the play, they say, “the word ‘Arab’ is mentioned 40 times, mostly sandwiched between the words ‘knife’, ‘stabbing’, ‘dirty’ and ‘blood’. ”

Morris drafted the piece in 2010 after a trip to Israel where he first met members of ZAKA. He traveled there twice more, once in 2013 and again in 2016. The last of his visits to Israel was with Daniel Brooks, the renowned Jewish Canadian playwright director with whom he collaborated on the project and who would become the play’s director in Toronto. 

In an interview with Broadway World, around the time of the play’s debut, Morris said, “Anything dealing with that part of the world can be an instantly divisive proposition, but more and more I felt like my whole focus was on ZAKA and its members. The work they do is extraordinary.”

In the production company Human Cargo’s accompanying notes for the Winnipeg production of The Runner, Morris writes, “This play is dedicated to Jakoff Mueller, a ZAKA member in Israel who passed away in February 2018. He first welcomed me into his home in 2010 and over the years we spent many hours talking about the experiences he had working with ZAKA.” It is difficult to find any record of significant parallel meetings with Palestinians in his research for the play in Morris’s public interviews.

Jonathan Gustin, who petitioned to save the play asking that the Belfry be “a responsible artistic venue, championing free speech and viewpoint diversity” wrote a letter to the Belfry’s directors last month, arguing that “Theatre is a place to explore challenging topics.” 

“Some Pro-Palestine activists,” he wrote, “who in their understandable desire to end the war in Gaza, have targeted a play about the Israeli experience, simply because it is about the Israeli experience.He was disappointed with the theatre’s decision to cancel it. 

The Belfry’s stated artistic mission “is to produce theatre that generates ideas and dialogue, and that makes the audience see the world a little differently.” The play’s unique physical unfolding and insight into the mind of a Jewish ZAKA runner is undoubtedly a perspective a Victorian audience may not otherwise be exposed to. However, Victorians are also already seeing images across news outlets, Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and the daily bombings by the Israeli military that are killing Palestinians and decimating Gazan homes and infrastructure.

It is not surprising then, that the choice to run the play came under public scrutiny, in particular, by members of the Jewish and Palestinian communities and their respective allies.

It was evident, at a Dec. 22 meeting that the Belfry’s executive director Isaac Thomas and artistic director Michael Shamata held with members of the public, that for people with divergent opinions on the play, tensions were high. 

“Feelings were heightened on every side and that made the environment incredibly unsafe,” said fosse chang, a stage manager and member of the Jewish community who was opposed to running the play. Solomon Siegel also attended the meeting and said that one person “was yelling into a bullhorn inside of the theatre and hurt his ears.” Gustin also attended the meeting and said roughly 60 people showed up, and described it as “total mayhem.” There was no designated trained facilitator or mediator on site at the meeting. 

In an interview with Capital Daily, Gustin said that protestors, “if they’re upset about the war, should boycott Netanyahu, not Chris Morris, who is just a Canadian playwright, trying to do good with his play.” The Sumud1948 group that demanded the Belfry cancel the play is dubious whether that “good” also extends to the Palestinian community. 

In a 2018 interview with Canadian Jewish News, Morris said that the solo show captures what it is like to live in Israel, “where many challenges, including terrorism, are non-stop there, and looks at the perspective of what it’s like to be in that space.” The Sumud1948 group is arguing that this perspective is too narrow.

In their online statement, and call to cancel the play, the Sumud1948 Substack authors wrote, "The Runner is framed to be a challenge of racist beliefs. Except that it centres the Israeli narrative, states outright racist tropes under the guise of critiquing them, [and] dehumanizes Palestinians.” In its Dec. 19 statement, the Belfry offered to publish the script on Jan. 8 so that people could have the chance to read it themselves.

In 2016, the film Bastille Day featuring Idris Elba hunting down a group of international terrorists in Paris was initially delayed and then pulled altogether from French cinemas by StudioCanal out of respect for the victims and families of the 84 people killed there in bomb attacks in 2015. The Belfry Theatre seems to have made a similar decision here, weighing instead, in favour of avoiding potential harms to the community in the name of artistic freedom. 

For Farley Cates, the former co-director for the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival, the question comes down to artistic freedom and censorship. “I am worried that if we cancel this play, it’s a slippery slope. What play will be next?”  But for others, the debate isn’t simply about cancel-culture, or censorship. It was about timing, sensitivity and respect for the victims of the war and their families.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that fosse chang was a stage manager at the Belfry. They did not work at the Belfry, and this has been updated. Farley Cates was also noted as the former chair of the Vancouver International Jewish Film Festival, but this has been corrected to the former co-director of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.

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