Stage No-person's land

In 'Otherwise Occupied' Palestinians live checkpoint to checkpoint

Clockwise from the top: Monessa Esquival, S.T. Shimi, and Xelena Gonzalez capture the daily tribulations of life in war-weary Palestine in Otherwise Occupied

On opening night, the Jump-Start Performance Company's heartfelt production of Otherwise Occupied brought a deeply moved San Antonio audience to its feet. Written by Dianne Monroe in collaboration with Salwa Arnous, this 70-minute piece explores the lives of Palestinian women under Israeli occupation. Monroe researched this project through a series of transcontinental phone calls, blending the resulting transcripts into a series of interlocking monologues and vignettes. In its final form, Otherwise Occupied lands somewhere between a documentary and prose-poem, not so much a play as a prayer. Featuring lovely performances from its trio of actresses, and deft direction by Latrelle Bright, it is sure to leave its mark on the San Antonio theater scene.

For the performance, set designers Billy Muñoz, Arnous, and Bright have transformed the Jump-Start into a Palestinian war zone, strewn with rubble and polyglot graffiti. Scraps of twisted metal litter the aisles, evocative of ethnic strife and, as one audience member in high heels painfully discovered, really hard to walk on. Muñoz' and Ariel Robello's lighting helps shift the action between scenes of introspection and a very public war, including a dizzying nighttime air raid.

Individual scenes sparkle as Monessa Esquivel, Xelena González, and S. T. Shimi capture the daily tribulations and surprising comments of the war-weary. An example: A Palestinian housewife who married into a life of domestic seclusion at 14 watches female Israeli soldiers proudly drilling outside her house. Suddenly, an aperçu: Israel will always be stronger than Palestine, she sadly observes, because Palestine uses one hand, but Israel, two. In another scene, a student recalls a curfew-inspired feast of potatoes, in which every dish featured, by necessity, another twist on the lowliest of vegetables. The piece is at its finest when presenting these startling anecdotes of daily life.

Otherwise Occupied

Through Apr 10
8pm Fri-Sat, 7pm Sun
$12 adult, $9 student
Jump-Start Theater
108 Blue Star
In fact, the play might have been called Checkpoint, a term as indicative of Palestinian daily life as any. In the production's most amusing vignette, the actresses morph into human timepieces, ticking out the minutes, and the hours, required for roadside checkpoints. All of Palestine, it seems, is just a network of these checkpoints: time-consuming, infuriating, profoundly lunatic reminders of the power of occupation and the employment of force. Several of the piece's best moments revolve around these checkpoints, which, rooted in the deepest of human friction, teem with an abundance of human interaction, including a checkpoint romance, a checkpoint birth (to a boy named, of course, "Checkpoint"), checkpoint arguments, checkpoint stabbings, checkpoint murders.

Not everything hits the mark quite so well, however. Monroe's recorded voiceovers are frequently muddy in sound and often distracting; the heart of the show is in the Palestinians' voices, and the disembodied otherness of this narrator is both unnecessary and incongruous. A late scene in a schoolroom, in which youngsters spout aphorisms about Palestinian life, only serves to heighten the play's didacticism. And one misses the type of polyphony brought to life in similar theater pieces such as The Laramie Project, in which a transparent failure of human civilization is seen from a variety of angles, some contradictory. The women of Otherwise Occupied sing in alluring euphony, but without counterpoint. I suspect a fugue would be more theatrical.

But this is not to detract from the pleasure, even the importance, of this work, which is filled with lyric intensity and a burning core of indignation and sorrow. It's also a home-grown piece: When a Palestinian remarks in astonishment that you can drive from San Antonio to Dallas without a single checkpoint, it shocks the audience into realizing the ease of Texan daily life. It's worth catching on its final weekend - even if you thought you'd be otherwise occupied.