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Visiting Algerian theater troupe to stage drama about freedom, political ambition

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Fresh from a performance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, the experimental theater collective Istijmam will bring the play "Apples" to Indiana University Bloomington for one night only.

"Apples," or "Et'teffeh," will be presented in English (with some Algerian Arabic) Sept. 9 at the Wells-Metz Theatre.

Jane E. Goodman, an associate professor of anthropology at IU Bloomington, arranged for the troupe from Oran, Algeria, to visit the campus as part of its first tour of the United States. The group also will meet with students from IU's Hutton Honors College during their stay.

Goodman has been conducting research with Istijmam since 2008 as part of her study of Algerian theater traditions. She also provided a revised translation for the play written by Abdelkader Alloula in the aftermath of Algeria's 1988 uprising.

The intimate, gritty drama not only reveals the Algerian past but remains relevant in the current national and global political atmosphere.

"Apples" opens with a man who is overcome by rage after an agonizing search for apples to satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife. In Algeria, the fruit is a luxury, expensive and hard to find because the warm climate does not allow for its local cultivation.

"A local vendor had managed to obtain a basket of choice aromatic apples but refused to sell, contending that their value was higher as a display item because they brought prestige to the neighborhood," Goodman said. "The inability to purchase an apple that the man could see and smell right in front of him was only one of a number of frustrating situations that he had recently encountered. The factory where he had worked for years had simply vanished overnight without warning. When he went to the authorities to find out what had happened, he joined throngs of others who had long been seeking justice that never came."

At wits' end, the man wants to scream and release his frustration at the Algerian system, which has made daily life all but impossible. He speaks to the proprietor of a public restroom, when a professional actor enters, seeking space to rehearse. The restroom fit the bill: it was clean, calm and had great acoustics.

The actor begins to recite passages from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." His dialogue becomes a comment on the dangers of political ambition, the value of freedom, and what it means to love one's country while rejecting its rulers, Goodman said.

As Istijmam's Center Stage website describes, the quest for freedom and democracy -- symbolized by apples -- brings characters together.

Istijmam and Algerian theater

Founded in 2007 and inspired by Alloula, Istijmam brings contemporary perspectives to bear on indigenous Algerian theatrical traditions. Alloula resurrected the popular halqa (circle) theatrical form as well as the tradition of the goual, a storyteller engaged in barbed social commentary.

"Theater in Algeria is in society, and society is in the theater," said actress Rihab Alloula, the playwright's daughter and a member of Istijmam.

She is joined in the traveling theater company by her father’s nephew Jamil Benhamamouch and the other actors Moussa Amine Boukraa and Mustapha Lakhdari. Djalal Hadjel is the stage manager and Lila Tahar Amar serves as an administrator.

The free public performance of "Apples" is made possible by generous support from the College Arts and Humanities Institute; the College of Arts and Sciences; the School of Global and International Studies; the Hutton Honors College; the Department of Anthropology; the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology; the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures; the Department of Comparative Literature; the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance; the programs in African studies, cultural studies and Islamic studies; and the Center for the Study of the Middle East, all at Indiana University.

The appearance of Istijmam is part of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

More about the playwright

Abdelkader Alloula wrote "Apples" after Algeria’s 1988 uprising, which toppled 30 years of single-party dictatorship but led to a decade of civil war that pitted Islamist insurgents against a military-backed regime. As a secular democratic intellectual committed to political pluralism, Alloula was tragically assassinated outside his home in Oran by Islamist terrorists in 1994. He had previously served as director of both the Algerian National Theater and the Regional Theater of Oran. "Apples" was one of Alloula's last works before his death.