A displaced factory worker, an old trade unionist, and an actor serendipitously meet in a public toilet, brought together by a vain pursuit of a precious piece of fruit and the need for a clean, calm space to rehearse Julius Caesar. Embodied by Algerian-based experimental theater company Istijmam, these three characters form the core of Et'teffeh (The Apples), a physically charged, satiric fable that captures the frustrations, absurdities, and uncertainties of everyday life.
Et'teffeh foregrounds the brutal repression and sectarian violence that consumed Algeria during the Dark Decade of the 1990s. The play is performed in a mix of Arabic and English by a trio directed by Jamil Benhamamouch and written by seminal theater maker Abdelkader Alloula, who was assassinated outside his home in 1994. Set on a bare stage, this gritty, fierce, and intimate production is full of dark humor and barbed observation as it bears witness to Algeria's shadowed past and confronts the complex destiny of the present day.
"Theater in Algeria is in society, and society is in the theater," says actress Rihab Alloula, the playwright's daughter. This is no abstract statement for Istijmam's collective of theater makers who stage their works in cinemas and courtyards, playgrounds and theaters. The aim: to repopulate the halqa, Algeria's town squares, and renew traditions of improvisation and interaction after two decades of sectarian violence and authoritarian rule emptied and silenced them.
Americans will have their first opportunity to experience this Algerian company's work when Istijmam embarks on its debut tour of the U.S. in 2016 as part of Center StageSM, an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts. From July-December 2016, Center Stage will bring five ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania to the U.S. for month-long tours. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage on Facebook and on Twitter and at www.centerstageUS.org.
Istijmam started in 2007 "as a research project we all wanted to undertake together," Rihab Alloula explains. "It's more of a lab -- for research, experimentation; the process."
This experimental approach deeply considers Algeria's indigenous theatrical roots, and the literary and cultural impacts of France's 132-year colonial control of Algeria, the longest in North Africa's Maghreb. "Theater in Algeria doesn't have a lot of theory to support its traditions. We started working on classic texts by Grotowski, Stanislavski, Artaud. We discovered alliances."
"Traditionally, Algerian theater is interactive," says stage director Benhammouch. "It depends on the skill of the goual -- a storyteller, a narrator who shifts from role to role but doesn't intend to 'be' a particular character." In this way there are similarities to Brecht's distanciation. "He can tell a full story without a set or costumes. He makes a personal connection, works on the imagination, without props." continues Benhamamouch. "His goal is for the spectators to imagine the story, not watch it. Abdelkader Alloula said: 'I give the ear to see and the eyes to hear.' That's our theater."
Istijmam follows in the goual's footsteps by keeping external trappings to a minimum. Instead, they sing, play instruments, and use dynamic gesture and movement to animate the text. This very physical and energetic approach elicits equal energy from their audiences, who often get directly involved in the performance. "The spectator participates in the story. He doesn't watch it, he helps make it," says Benhamamouch.
"It isn't a final product," explains Rihab Alloula. "When we come into contact with our audiences -- when we perform in a park, for example -- the production is different each time." This lively back-and-forth shapes Istijmam's work. "We are not unique," she muses. "But making theater is a choice. We have made this choice to work on our acquired cultural heritage, our popular tradition. We are very inspired by this, and this is very intimate and personal, for all our members."
The personal ties to the method and material add striking poignancy to Et'teffeh. It gives a strong sense of Algeria's 70-year struggle for independence and self-determination, the heavy price borne by its citizens, and the legacy that informs Algeria's destiny today. Yet even for audiences without this first-hand knowledge of the play's context, the company's committed intensity speaks, shining a light on what are universal human struggles, be they economic, political, or deeply personal.
"The English-speaking members of the audience will understand, even if there are Arabic texts," notes Rihab Alloula. "The trick is to join the two. We don't want to overwhelm them with words, but to transmit our culture, our story."
Abdelkader Alloula (1939-1994) was the author of 10 plays, director of the Regional Theater of Oran from 1972-1976 and the National Theater of Algiers from 1976-1977, and an actor in numerous plays and films. His work has been performed throughout North Africa and Western Europe. The Istijmam company is anchored by two of Alloula's descendants -- his daughter Rihab Alloula, and his nephew, Jamil Benhamamouch. Other members of the company traveling to the U.S. as part of Center Stage include actors Moussa Amine Boukraa and Mustapha Lakhdari, Stage Manager Djalal Hadjel and administrator Lila Tahar Amar.
Center Stage is an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations and supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. General management for Center Stage is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.
Exchange programs initiated by the Bureau support U.S. foreign policy goals and engage youth, students, educators, artists, athletes, and rising leaders in the U.S. and more than 160 countries. Artists touring as part of Center Stage build mutual understanding via cultural expression and people-to-people connections. The ensembles perform and engage with audiences onstage, offstage and online to create positive and popular avenues of shared culture and values.