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Gaza conflict-fed friction prompts another B.C. cancellation of play

Vancouver’s PuSh Festival will not stage planned production of The Runner
Playwright Christopher Morris performs during a production of his play, “The Runner” a Human Cargo Production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in this undated handout photo. Set & Costume Designer, Gillian Gallow and Lighting Designer, Bonnie Beecher. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Dylan Hewlett

Organizers of a performing arts festival in Vancouver have cancelled a play that addresses ethical dilemmas in the Middle East, citing friction caused by the Israel-Hamas war.

A statement from the PuSh Festival Thursday said it made the decision to cancel “The Runner” ahead of its staging this month after hearing from both those who wanted it to go ahead and others who called for its cancellation.

Last week, festival organizers said they were taking a show-must-go-on attitude for “The Runner” despite Victoria’s Belfry Theatre cancelling its planned run of the play over local tensions connected to the war.

“We have heard those who call to cancel The Runner, feeling it is a work that perpetuates the oppression of Palestinian people,” said a joint festival statement from Gabrielle Martin, director of programming, and Keltie Forsyth, director of operations.

“We have heard the call to present it by those who feel the work provides an empathetic, and fundamentally humanist perspective. We have also heard from those who believe theatre is the right place for difficult conversations and want us to resist censorship,” said the statement. “We have heard the call that now is not the right time.”

The one-person play, which was set to run Jan. 24 to 26, explores the reactions to an Israeli rescue volunteer’s decision to save a Palestinian woman accused of violence against a soldier from Israel.

The PuSh Festival statement said organizers have felt anger directed toward them in recent days, but its decision to drop the play is strongly connected to the words of festival artist Basel Zaraa, who said he could not allow his play “Dear Laila” to be shown this month with “The Runner.”

Christopher Morris, who wrote “The Runner” and was going to perform it in Vancouver and Victoria, said in the statement that if removing his show is “the only way Canadians can hear Basel’s crucial voice, then there is value in stepping aside.”

“Holding space for other viewpoints is essential, particularly at this moment of trauma and division,” Morris said in the statement. “I sympathize with the PuSh Festival’s distress when Basel shared that he’d withdraw his work if ‘The Runner’ remained in the festival, and when they arrived at their difficult decision to prioritize one artist’s voice over another.”

The festival statement said Zaraa said “The Runner” only “reinforces dehumanizing narratives about Palestinians.”

“Palestinians appear in ‘The Runner’ almost exclusively as perpetrators of violence,” Zaraa said in the statement. “While the Israeli characters are vividly portrayed, the Palestinian characters don’t even have names, and barely speak. While many voices are welcome, artistic endeavors on this subject have a responsibility to reflect the reality that there is an occupier and an occupied.”

Zaraa said he is looking forward to presenting “Dear Laila” at the festival.

The festival describes Zaraa’s play, “Dear Laila,” as an immersive production, inviting viewers to experience a model of Zaraa’s childhood home in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Victoria’s Belfry Theatre dropped “The Runner” from its spring lineup after receiving duelling petitions calling both for its cancellation and continued performance at the venue, which was spray-painted with graffiti that read “Free Palestine” last month following a tense community meeting.

Protests have been held across Canada since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, staged in city squares or aimed at politicians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was confronted in a Vancouver restaurant in November by dozens of people calling for a ceasefire in the war, and later police had to be called in to another restaurant to help get Trudeau to a vehicle through hundreds of protesters.

B.C.’s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, said in November that the Israel-Hamas war had caused a surge of discrimination and violence targeting Jewish and Muslim people.

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