“This is a play that’s so important because it celebrates our Palestinian women. And we need to celebrate our Palestinian women,” shared a father, with his arms around his two sons.
Dr. Victoria Rue recounts this memorable response to her play, Maryam: A Woman of Bethlehem.
The play, based on interviews with 30+ Bethlehem residents asks the question, “Who is Mary/Maryam in 21st c. Bethlehem?” Is she an emblem? A guide? Significant at all?
Interviewees represented a breadth of experiences and perspectives from both Christians and Muslims, including those of an Islamic scholar, a gender studies professor, a Christian theologian, a housekeeper, non-profit workers, junior high students, and college students.
Dr. Victoria Rue, professor of religious studies at San Jose State University, received a Fulbright to teach at Dar al-Kalima University and work with students to create and perform Maryam. From the beginning, Dr. Rue hoped this would be a “bridge-building play” that emphasized connections between Muslims and Christians, men and women. Throughout the life of the play, this hope was realized. From casting to translating, performance venues to audience reception, the play created a platform for an exchange of stories, beliefs and traditions around the central figure of Mary.
First, the play was performed by two Muslim women who, in their personal lives, vary in their relationship to religious and cultural tradition. One of the actresses wears a hijab, a head-covering, while the other does not. Because the two actresses perform twenty two characters in the play, they present a range of Christians’ perspectives of Mary. So, the actresses steeped themselves in the experiences and beliefs of their Christian neighbors.
Dr. Rue, in turn, also dug deeply into the Quran’s account of Mary, which gives far more detail about her childhood than the Biblical account. The Qur’an, in fact, has an entire chapter/sura named “Maryam.”
Audience members who came from a diverse range of religious and cultural backgrounds also had the opportunity to share their reactions after each performance, in a Q & A session. Here are some of those responses:
“I think the play says Maryam is in everyone.” -Bethlehem University student
“The play gave many opinions that as a Muslim I didn’t know before. This makes me accept these different points of view in my community. These points of view exist in the community— like the atheist —and we are neglecting them, neglecting this reality. Also, we cannot assume that all Christians or all Muslims think the same. They have many points of view. Like this play.” -Birzeit University student
“This play teaches us to stay in our homelands and don’t leave it, stay and not emigrate. Also, to face the occupation.” -A young person in Jenin refugee camp
“For me this play reflects the reality. You are not saying anything that you created. This is the real situation, but in a very subjective way.” Old man at Al Hakawati Theatre, E. Jerusalem
“Before the play Mary was something untouchable and significant, and after the play, I felt that any woman who is doing exceptional things, or doing things differently, could be Mary. -A woman at Al Kasabeh Theatre
Throughout the interview process, Dr. Rue also discovered connections that surfaced from today’s Palestinians to a far more ancient culture.
“Perhaps my biggest “aha” moment, Dr. Rue shares, “was learning that the symbolic roots of Mary are more ancient than the individual Mary/Maryam in Palestinian culture,” For example, she learned that the Milk Grotto, a pilgrimage site where legend holds that while nursing baby Jesus in a cave, Mary spilt a drop of her milk, turning the rock milky white. For centuries, Muslim and Christian women have come to this site in search of improving their fertility or lactation.
Yet, this region’s history of mystical milk predates Muslim, Christian, even Jewish tradition. Historic records of Canaan’s popular fertility goddess, Astarte, also reference milk as a symbol of fertility- and its uses in religious ritual. Throughout the Bible, we also see references to pre-Hebrew Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” an ancient reference to this female deity.
The play also bridges ancient and contemporary.
One of the actresses, Dalia observed how the play touched on issues surrounding the difficulty of being a woman in Palestine today. She remarked, “I never thought of myself as a feminist, but this play, in a very unexpected way, gets at issues of feminism using a religious figure.”
Maryam also touches on an underlying reality that affects all Palestinians, women and men: the occupation. One of the characters in the play, Layla reflects on how the occupation reintroduces and emphasizes violence and patriarchy in Palestinian society. To guard against the effects of the occupation, Layla expresses her resolve,
“What I want to help create is a society of resurrected men and women who feel that they can bring who they are to the world without having to pray to a statue, or hide or be ashamed. To be brave enough to be who you are—that’s the slap in the face to the occupation, to society, to everything that tells you that you are sh**. And we are told we are sh**.”
Perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the play. In listening to a multitude of Palestinians’ perspectives on the life-giving figure of Mary/Maryam, we glimpse the interior worlds of a people whose dignity is constantly threatened. We become witnesses to a tender resilience.
Since January 2019, the play has debuted at eight different venues including theaters, universities and community centers across the West Bank and in Israel- from East Jerusalem, to Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Jifna and of course, Bethlehem.
Dr. Rue dreams of bringing this play to the States, perhaps the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, whose director is Palestinian. Rue expresses a willingness to bring the work to a variety of venues, stating, “however this play can contribute to Americans’ knowledge that there is a beautiful culture called Palestine, and a beautiful people called Palestinian.”
About Victoria Rue, PhD
Victoria Rue is a feminist theologian and a writer, director and teacher of theatre. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in New York and wrote her dissertation on how feminist theatre enacts feminist theology. Dr. Rue has taught in the fields of Religious Studies and Theology for fifteen years. She has taught at the Pacific School of Religion, Starr King School for the Ministry, the California Institute for Integral Studies and St. Lawrence University. She is currently a lecturer in the Women Studies and Comparative Religious Studies Department of San Jose State University. Victoria’s book, Acting Religious: Theatre as Pedagogy in Religious Studies, was published in 2005 by Pilgrim Press. Dr. Rue is also an ordained Catholic priest. http://www.victoriarue.com