Playwright Tom Block aims to tell ‘two equally righteous narratives’ of Israel, Palestine

Tom Block speaks during the International Human Rights Art Festival in 2023. (Courtesy photo)

NEW YORK (RNS) — Tom Block was feeling low. For months, there had been no movement on his play “Oud Player on the Tel,” after an initially positive reception to a January reading at a community arts center. But today, the call had finally come.

He had won a grant to help stage “Oud Player,” a play about an unlikely friendship forged right before the founding of the state of Israel.

“I had given up,” Block told Religion News Service in April, hours after he received the news. “I think the energy was there, it was just latent and dormant, and now it’s blazing back in.”

Soon after, Block began fielding offers for “Oud Player” to run in New York City sometime in 2025.

Since its premiere at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Block had been fighting to fund a full staging to show more audiences what he sees as a first step toward peace in the Holy Land: to understand “there are two equally righteous narratives” in the displacement of Jews and Palestinians.

In “Oud Player,” written a decade ago and first read in 2014 at the 14th Street Y, Block imagines a friendship between two displaced people in 1947: a German Holocaust survivor and a Sufi villager who takes in the survivor and his son. The friendship, built over respect, a similar work ethic and an overlap between the Abrahamic faiths, can’t withstand the “forces of darkness” that ask people to choose a side.

“You must be willing to accept the veracity of the other side’s narrative — grudgingly and miserably though that may be,” he told RNS. “And at that point, maybe you, the audience, will stop being part of the problem, aligned with darkness and on one side or the other, and part of the light, a person who is moving beyond that ‘you or us’ narrative.”

Actors rehearse for a January 25, 2024, reading of "Oud Player on the Tel" at the Center for Arts and Learning in Queens, New York. (Courtesy photo)

Actors rehearse for a Jan. 25, 2024, reading of “Oud Player on the Tel” at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens, New York. (Courtesy photo)

At the JCAL reading, located in a majority Black neighborhood in Block’s home base of Queens, Block felt on top of the hill — or tel (in Hebrew and Arabic), he says, alluding to his play’s namesake. The crowd had hushed to the strings of a short-neck, fretless instrument many didn’t know by name. They had learned about the guitar-like oud, and the metaphorical tel on which it’s played. 

They had learned, too, that Block, who is Jewish but is drawn to the mysticism of all three Abrahamic faiths, didn’t write “Oud Player on the Tel” with pro-Israel or pro-Palestine sentiment. 

“It was a reaction to the 50th anniversary of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ because I thought there was a parallel and very similar story for the Palestinians and the Nakba around the founding of Israel, and I thought it was a story that needed to be told,” he told the audience during the talkback session after the performance. 

Some noted their surprise over the timing: The play was chosen for a staged reading at JCAL long before the Israel-Hamas war. But the war almost got it canceled.

After Oct. 7, like many organizations facing security concerns and pressure from supporters of Israel, JCAL was on the brink of canceling the reading and called Block to voice concerns. He suggested adding an interfaith dialogue to make the performance a safer space. JCAL leaders decided to give it a shot.

Actors perform a staged reading of "Oud Player on the Tel" at the Center for Arts and Learning in Queens, New York. (Video screen grab)

Actors perform a staged reading of “Oud Player on the Tel” at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens, New York. (Video screen grab)

He called on three acquaintances, one Jewish and two Muslim, to join him on stage after the show. They discussed how hard it is to find common ground around the conflict even in their world of interfaith dialogue. Of the three, Block had worked closely with Michelle Koch, co-founder and executive director of the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, on interfaith events. And Block, also a painter, had displayed some of his paintings in an Arts4Resilience showcase led by Rasha Abdel Latif, director of Middle East and North Africa and Civil Society Strengthening at PartnersGlobal.

Koch said at first she wasn’t sure, and when she expressed her hesitation, Leonard Jacobs, executive director of JCAL, assured her they would have more security the day of the event.

“That kind of blew my mind, like ‘wow, what is it that we’re talking about that we need more security?’” Koch said. “What is dangerous here?”

Block, who also wrote a book called “Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity” about the ties between Jewish and Islamic mysticism, is used to others seeing interfaith conversations as dangerous when caught in the crosshairs of geopolitics.

Before the Israel-Hamas war began and before Block decided to revisit his decade-old play, he had been working with a friend, Wafa Jamil, on a film called “The Other Gaza.” Born and raised in Gaza, Jamil had started the film two years before the war to portray what everyday life was like there. It was the kind of work Block supported through his nonprofit organization, the International Human Rights Art Movement, so he signed on as a co-producer. 

“(Working on the film) really raised again in my consciousness just how much people get passionate about this subject the way they do not about Ukraine and Russia, or with the Sudanese civil war or the Tibetan situation or Kashmir or Kurdistan,” Block told RNS.

In his interfaith dialogue work through the nonprofit, Block says he typically experiences three flavors of interactions between Jews and Muslims and Palestinians and Israelis: One is an open energy, one is a hesitant one, and the third is an openly hostile environment where “people are not the least bit interested in this narrative.” 

At the staged reading of “Oud Player on the Tel,” the audience brought all three types, Block says. He expected as much from what he calls a forensic history, “a history that has been buried beneath political enmities today.”

Unsurprisingly, tension had ricocheted off some audience members’ questions during the talkback with Block, the cast and crew. “Oud Player” is one of the few public performances of its kind to take place since the onset of the war.

“Art is inviting by itself,” Latif told RNS. “When you have a character like Tom, it’s that mix of both the inviting vibe and opening like ‘let’s search for common ground, let’s talk, let’s discuss.’”

Block looks to continue diving into these interfaith conversations through the work of his nonprofit, his paintings and his plays. As the war in Gaza passes its seven-month mark, Block is preparing to direct a first full performance of “Oud Player.” 

It’s a relief after the months of stagnation. But Sarah Feingold, a fellow playwright and board member of Block’s nonprofit, says it was Block who taught her to embrace an artist’s low points: “He would say, ‘You should be getting rejected from opportunities every single day,’” Feingold said.

“The role of art, in my opinion, is to go into the most difficult situations, not turn away from them,” Block said of “Oud Player.”

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button