Two boys — one Israeli, one Palestinian, both armed — stare one another down amidst chaos.
“Their faces are exactly the same. The same fear. The same desperate desire to be anywhere but here. To not be doing this, to this other boy. And there, in that moment, for us, it began.”
Those words, spoken by Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul as she breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience are a beginning in and of themselves. Juul’s analysis of that moment sets the stage for the rest of J.T. Roger’s Tony Award-winning play, “Oslo.” Inspired to save those boys from their fate, she and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, set out to do something to quell the first Intifada, a conflict that consumed Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s.
That something? Establish a back channel for negotiations between Israel and what was then the de facto voice of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in order to precipitate the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
This Saturday director Karin Waidley and her cast will lead the audience through Juul and Rod-Larsen’s journey during Off Square Theatre Company’s staged reading of “Oslo” at the Center for the Arts’ Center Theater. The reading will start at 1 p.m., and will be followed by “The Art of Diplomacy,” a 4:30 p.m. panel discussion. That conversation will give the audience a chance to pose questions to a three-decade career diplomat, Ambassador Gary Grappo, and pick apart the narrative Roger’s play puts forward.
For Natalia Duncan Macker, Off Square’s artistic director, the production of “Oslo” is intended to get the audience talking.
“I think the dialogue and questions that we want to ask about diplomacy are less about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more about what are the tools we need to do so, and how do we cultivate them,” she said.
Macker’s sentiment is consistent with the spirit of the the play. “Oslo” does not dwell on the fact that the Oslo Accords, which established a timeline for a peace process in the conflict, broke down within a decade of their signing. Instead, it shows how the relationships built through the Norwegian backchannel led to a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993 on the White House lawn.
But while “Oslo” makes a theme out of building human relationships as a diplomatic tool, it also takes liberties in building Roger’s human characters.
Even though the play is based on a true story and real people, Macker noted that it is “not a documentary.” Instead, she said the creative license Rogers deploys in his script is intended to make the play “stimulating and entertaining.” In short, “Oslo” is a work of theater based in reality.
“It produces its own areas for discussion around art and artifice and posturing, all of which exist in diplomacy,” Macker said.
One of the characters Roger’s depicts, Yossi Beilin, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister, will be played by Ami Dayan. The actor, who is Israeli, staffed Beilin’s 1997 campaign to helm Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party. He knows the politician personally and said that “Oslo” portrays him as a more aggressive figure than he is in real life.
“Beilin is an academic,” he said. “His use of the ‘f word’ [in ‘Oslo’] is not something that I’ve ever heard. He’s very soft-spoken.”
That sort of contrast between fact and fiction is likely to be a topic of discussion during Saturday’s panel discussion. Other conversations, like how historical narratives influence both art and policy, are sure to come up as well.
For the actors, some were already ongoing during Off Square’s Sunday rehearsal.
Fajer Kaisi, an New York City actor who plays the PLO’s finance minister, noted that Yasser Arafat does not make an appearance in “Oslo” while Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister who served as minister of foreign affairs during the Oslo negotiations, does.
“It’s telling that he’s not in play,” he said.
During the secret conversations that led to the Oslo Accords, Arafat was in exile in Tunisia. He was not part of the negotiations. Kaisi said the PLO leader’s absence from the script of “Oslo” could be a result of either the realities of that historical moment or a narrative oversight.
“Narrative is decided by who’s telling the story,” he said.
In this case the storyteller is Rogers, an American playwright who chose to focus “Oslo” on the role of Juul and Rod-Larsen in the signing of the landmark peace treaty rather than the role of Israeli or Palestinian negotiators. When he was reading the play to prepare for the production, Kaisi noticed it had a sort of Western-centric lens.
“I was trying to figure out whether it was capturing tone deafness that was around at the time, or if it’s just tone deaf itself,” he said. “I think it’s somewhere in the middle.”
Macker recognized that there are valid criticisms of the narrative “Oslo” puts forth. For her, Waidley and actors like Dayan and Kaisi, the importance of the play — and staging it in Jackson — is not to put forth an immutable piece of theater. The goal is to start conversation. ￼