Theater Review - Tennis in Nablus finds faults in Palestinian history

Kendeda competition winner Ismail Khalidi serves mixed results

Writer Ismail Khalidi won the Alliance Theatre’s sixth Kendeda Graduate Playwright Competition for Tennis in Nablus, and deserves the honor for sheer effrontery. Born in Beirut and raised in Chicago, Khalidi strides into the minefield of Palestine’s history to juggle such high-yield thematic explosives as Zionism, British colonial abuse, and the Palestinian independence movement.

On top of that, Khalidi’s brazen enough to make Tennis in Nablus partially a comedy that looks for laughs in an area of the world marked by centuries of bloodshed and hard feelings. In its world premiere production at the Alliance Hertz Stage, Tennis in Nablus courts controversy with its witty treatment of the Holy Land’s history, but doesn’t always ace its serve.

Nablus uses the tensions within one family to dramatize the turbulence among Palestinians in 1939. The play begins when convict-turned-fugitive Yusef (Demosthenes Chrysan) arrives in Nablus after two years to reunite with his wife, Ambara (Suehyla El-Attar). Both spouses use separate means to agitate for Palestinian freedom from British control: Yusef pursues armed rebellion and other forms of open protest, while Ambara writes fiery tracts under male pseudonyms.

Yusef’s return rekindles a feud with his nephew Tariq (Bhavesh Patel), a businessman who wants to assimilate with the best facets of British civilization. Tariq brokers land deals with the country’s influx of Jewish immigrants, outraging Yusef. Yusef, however, nods to the region’s complexities in distinguishing between longtime Jewish residents and the newcomers as “Arab Jews” vs. “Zionist Europeans.” Andrew Benator plays Tariq’s friend, Jewish lawyer Samuel Hirsh, whose connections and influence anticipate the rise of the state of Israel a decade later.   

Following a pair of double-crosses, Yusef and Tariq end up hashing out their differences while awaiting trial in a British cell. In the play’s most strange and memorable sight, their English captors shackle the men together at the ankle and force them to be the ball boys at tennis matches.

The twilight of England’s colonial period provides Tennis in Nablus with a wealth of competing nationalities and political agendas. Khalidi’s cleverest inventions turn out to be two British Army soldiers, Michael O'Donegal from Ireland (Michael Simpson) and Rajib from India (Jim Sarbh). Mismatched friends due to their mutual loathing of the English, Michael and Rajib persistently charm the audience with their open insubordination. They even hate the English royalty so much they play “Bolshevik poker,” in which kings are worth nothing. The roles provide more than comic relief and make the larger metaphorical point that England’s losing its grip on its rebellious subjects.

The treatment of the English officers as sadistic clowns proves more problematic. Nablus makes a running joke that the English have a frivolous obsession with costume parties, and we first see nasty Lieutenant Douglas Duff (Joe Knezevich) leading a raid in full regalia as a maharaja. The problem is that Duff and upper-class twit General Falbour (Bart Hansard) remain such caricatures, the play veers into a broader form of parody with their every appearance. Falbour’s remark “They’re as shifty as a pack of … shifty things” evokes the superb British military spoof “Blackadder Goes Forth.” Duff and Falbour come across as cartoons rather than real men to the point where you wonder if they’d be more effective as offstage voices.

Directed by Peggy Shannon, Tennis in Nablus’s early moments don’t foreshadow the level of comedy to come. The first scene depicts a late-night checkpoint as an armed soldier questions an elderly merchant, an image that evokes the contemporary U.S. occupation of Iraq. The second act suffers less from the whiplash changes in tone, partly because the plot speeds up as Ambara tries to figure out how to release the men from prison. The last stretch builds to suspense worthy of a political thriller, with audiences familiar with Middle Eastern history bracing for an ending that’s anything but happy.

Of the passionate actors, Patel emerges as the first among equals by finding the humor and pathos in Tariq’s slow political awakening. In his first appearances, his elegant posture alone speaks to his commitment to English values. As he rediscovers his Palestinian patriotism, Patel conveys a boyish enthusiasm that turns to a revolutionary’s zeal. The premiere production of Tennis in Nablus may not do as right by the rest of the playwright’s creations, but even the one-dimensional roles embody some provocative ideas — and that’s no backhanded compliment.

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