Formerly incarcerated women of color perform the story of a Palestinian teen killed by Israeli police in October 2000. The act of Black-Palestine solidarity highlights shared trauma, but also concrete ways toward liberation.
By Jen Marlowe and Je Naé Taylor
On October 2, 2000, Aseel Asleh, a 17-year old Palestinian citizen of Israel, was shot and killed by Israeli police at a demonstration outside his village in northern Israel. On September 3, a staged reading of “There is a Field,” a documentary play of Aseel’s life and killing, was performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival, produced by the Gildapapoose Collective, a D.C.-based direct action and arts organization that seeks Black liberation.
What made the event unique: Black and Brown women directly impacted by incarceration led the performance. Even more unique: some of those women were bailed out due to funds raised through staged readings of the very same play. Here, the director and Gildapapoose founder, Je Naé Taylor, reflects on the process and performance with the playwright, Jen Marlowe.
Taylor: Why did you first write There is a Field?
Marlowe: Aseel was a friend of mine – he had been my camper in a peace organization that I was working for at the time. When he was murdered, I knew I had to do something to make sure that his life and how he was killed would be remembered. A few months after his killing, I asked his older sister Nardeen if she wanted to partner with me on writing a play, and that’s when we began.
Taylor: So There is a Field really started for you as a tribute to Aseel. What connections does this play make for you now?
Marlowe: I finished an earlier version of the play in 2010, and then I put the script down. Several years later, I decided that I wanted to develop the script further, so in the summer of 2014, I picked it back up. This was just as protests against police brutality and racism erupted across the U.S., after police in Ferguson, Missouri killed an unarmed Black teenager. I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Aseel’s story and the state violence that plays out on Black and Brown bodies here in the U.S. I wanted the play to provide a framework for those connections to be explored.
Taylor: The connections felt so clear to me. When I first saw the play at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights conference, I felt like I was watching a story about the lived experiences of Black people. An unarmed teenager is killed by the police, there’s dozens of eye-witnesses, it’s national news – and no police officer is indicted. Just here in D.C., Terrence Sterling, Alonzo Smith, Javon Hall, Bobby Gross, Ralphael Briscoe, Mariam Carey, Relisha Rudd, are all lives stolen from us by police violence. The play talks about Palestine, but it’s so similar to the injustices at home.
Marlowe: You raised $16,000 through readings of the play, and the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) Bail Out bailed out six mothers. You also have been able to offer the Mamas a paid theatre fellowship. How did you first conceive of using There is a Field to raise funds to bail out Black mamas?
Taylor: You and I were already brainstorming ways to use the play in D.C. to benefit folks most impacted by state violence. And this felt like a real, concrete way to do that. Every Black person I know has been impacted by prison and cages. Either they’ve been locked up, they have someone locked up, or someone they know is a correctional officer, and these are all entry points to Palestine.
Marlowe: Such a huge percentage of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons.
Taylor: Exactly. Aseel’s father was a prisoner. He chose early on to educate his children about his time in prison. Aseel’s parents politicized him at an early age. Aseel’s mother reminds me of the mothers I organize with in Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a youth organization, who lead actions with their children at their hips.
Marlowe: There are so many ways you could have raised funds for the DMV Black Mama Bail Out. Why theatre?
Taylor: For me, theatre is liberation. Rehearsal is literally my church, it’s my spiritual practice. The stage gave me a sanctuary to move as big, as loud, as long as I wanted. I want to extend that gift to the people who receive it the least. Because if I believe that freedom is something that we all deserve, then we all deserve theatre.
Marlowe: I remember when I came down to D.C. for two of the fundraiser readings that you organized, and being profoundly moved watching the readings, seeing the concrete solidarity that was being enacted. It wasn’t only talk about Black-Palestinian solidarity. Aseel’s story was literally, concretely part of bringing freedom to these Black mothers. A few months ago, when you emailed a link to the Page to Stage festival, saying you wanted to apply with There Is A Field, and that the mothers who the play bailed out would be the ones performing – I got chills up and down my spine.
Marlowe: What was it like for you to see the play at the Kennedy Center?
Taylor: It felt very significant to me. People who haven’t been a part of the theatre know the Kennedy Center. Part of the point was to offer a space for dignity to be restored. You just feel differently when you’ve been seen, validated, valued. From being in a cage in May, to being at the Kennedy Center in September! What was it like for you?
Marlowe: I was just totally struck by what the Mamas and the other performers shared in the post-play discussion. Qiana Johnson [who played Jamila, Aseel’s mother] talking about being locked away from her own children for two and a half years, and how the loss of that time with her sons allowed her to relate to Jamila’s trauma. And how much it meant to Qiana that Kahari, her 14-year-old son, was in the audience watching her. Qiana had never even seen a play before, much less performed in one. She told me afterwards how comforting it was to have Kahari come and watch his mother be part of this, and be a part of her healing, as he, too, heals.
Taylor: To know what Qiana and Andrea Nelson [who portrayed Hassan, Aseel’s father] endured inside of a cage, and to hear their actual voices outside and on stage – it’s poetry. This is what Jamila would sound like, this is what Hassan would sound like. It’s the voices of those who have struggled with some weighty things.
Marlowe: Was there any moment that particularly stood out to you?
Taylor: During the talk-back, Andrea thanked Gildapapoose for bailing her out and called us her angels. In that moment, I saw someone sitting in the audience who had hosted one of the readings of the play. We raised $2,000 that night, I remember seeing the donations fly in. At that one reading, we had raised most of what it took to bail out Andrea.
Marlowe: I was also really struck with what Alé shared [Alé Pablos, a Mexican woman who grew up in Arizona, spent 43 days inside an ICE detention center earlier this year, after having previously spent two years inside the same prison. Pablos portrayed Nardeen, Aseel’s sister]. She resonated so much with both Aseel and Nardeen, as an activist who has been physically attacked by police, and as a woman struggling to create a family in these conditions with man-made borders.
Taylor: Alé’s case opened me up to how difficult it is for people to live where they want to live, and that has everything to do with this play. People decided that they have a right to be here more than you have a right to be here, and you have to move. That happens over and over, time and again in America. Someone coming and saying, you don’t deserve to be here, we have things bigger than yours, we are going to move you, to slaughter you, to rape you, to kill you.
Marlowe: Is this the kind of art you want to be creating?
Taylor: It’s difficult to feel gifted in this process in the same way as if it were a fictional story. Aseel’s story is something that’s very real. There’s so much grief and sorrow. But then there’s a gift to keeping Aseel alive through this storytelling, and that’s connected to how I feel about the beautiful performance at the Kennedy Center. As glorious as it was, these women had to suffer for us to do this. If prison did not exist, if cages did not exist, I would not be making this type of theatre.
Taylor: What is your highest dream for this play?
Marlowe: I think we may have just achieved it. Knowing that Aseel’s words and story have been a part of bringing other people their freedom. The full-circle solidarity of the Mamas performing his story. Hearing Qiana say, “I am forever a part of Aseel’s living legacy.” I can’t imagine a higher purpose for this play.