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PuSh Festival cancels The Runner and issues statement with Palestinian-born artist Basel Zaraa and playwright Christopher Morris

The Runner by Dylan Hewlett
In Christopher Morris's The Runner, Jacob is an Orthodox Jew who volunteers with a group in Israel that collects remains of those killed in accidents. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

The PuSh Festival for the Performing Arts released the following statement on January 11 regarding the cancellation of Christopher Morris’s play, The Runner:

On January 2nd, we released a statement that expressed our hope that PuSh bring us together and inspire us to have complex and nuanced conversations; to challenge ourselves and each other not only to think differently, but to feel differently. We positioned The Runner as part of a wider Festival ecology that offers opportunities for self-reflection, better understanding of others’ experiences, and dialogue.

Over the past two weeks, we have been in conversation with various members of our community. We have heard those who call to cancel The Runner, feeling it is a work that perpetuates the oppression of Palestinian people. We have heard the call to present it by those who feel the work provides an empathetic, and fundamentally humanist perspective. We have also heard from those who believe theatre is the right place for difficult conversations and want us to resist censorship. We have heard the call that now is not the right time. We have heard nuanced and careful criticism of the play, and we have seen it mischaracterized as intentionally harmful Israeli propaganda.

And we have felt the desire to uphold relationships with artists. We have felt the anger expressed to us. But most importantly, we have felt the words of Festival artist Basel Zaraa.

Statement from Basel Zaraa

Dear Laila is an installation I created for my young daughter, which tells the story of our family’s ongoing trauma and struggle as Palestinians exiled by Israel, starting with the massacre in our village of Tantura in Palestine, in 1948. As Israel’s genocide in Gaza continues, I cannot agree for Dear Laila to be shown alongside The Runner, a play which reinforces dehumanising narratives about Palestinians.

Palestinians appear in The Runner almost exclusively as perpetrators of violence. While the Israeli characters are vividly portrayed, the Palestinian characters don’t even have names, and barely speak. The fundamental context of Israel’s occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people is not given.

This is not a war between two sides, but a decades-long effort by Israel to control and erase our people. While many voices are welcome, artistic endeavors on this subject have a responsibility to reflect the reality that there is an occupier and an occupied.

I am grateful to PuSh for their commitment to showing my work, and am looking forward to presenting Dear Laila at the festival.

— Basel Zaraa

Dear Laila
Basel Zaraa’s Dear Laila is Boca del Lupo’s studio, The Fishbowl on Granville Island, from January 20 to February 3. Photo by Mohab Mohamed.

Festival expresses respect for Zaraa and Morris

As a Festival, we respect Basel’s perspective. We will honour the artist whose work reflects their lived experience and cancel the presentations of The Runner by Canadian playwright Christopher Morris, whose work is rooted in years of research but who has no religious or cultural ties to the region.

This difficult decision comes after weeks of making significant effort to honour our commitment to Human Cargo and Christopher Morris, whose artistry we deeply respect. We will fulfill all financial commitments with them. At the same time, we believe it is a necessary choice to prioritize the work of an artist whose perspective is grossly underrepresented in Canadian theatre and performance culture. We believe that in the context of a daily bombardment of Gaza by the state of Israel that has, as of January 9, killed over 23,000 Palestinians – a majority women and children – and displaced 85% of Gaza’s 2 million residents, this is the right choice to make. We also recognize the immense and real suffering faced by the 2,000 Israeli families whose loved ones were murdered, assaulted or taken hostage on October 7. Finally, we unequivocally condemn all anti-semitic and Islamophobic attacks, and maintain that the State of Israel, as well as Hamas, like any state actors, can and should be criticized, without fear of censure.

Watch the trailer for Dear Laila.

Statement from Christopher Morris

The Runner is a fictional story about an Israeli man who saves the life of a young Palestinian woman and is ostracized by his peers for doing so. It is an award-winning, one-person play, told from the singular perspective of a man who confronts his community’s fear and their dehumanization of others. Criticised by his own people, his empathy never wavers. For me, The Runner is a nuanced play about the need to see the humanity of others.

Basel Zaraa’s voice is new to Canadians and his installation Dear Laila–also nuanced & award-winning–focuses on his family experience as Palestinians exiled by Israel. It is an extraordinary, important work.

Holding space for other viewpoints is essential, particularly at this moment of trauma and division. I sympathize with the PuSh Festival’s distress when Basel shared that he’d withdraw his work if The Runner remained in the festival; and when they arrived at their difficult decision to prioritize one artist’s voice over another. PuSh’s leadership has navigated this complicated situation with transparency and care. If removing The Runner is the only way Canadians can hear Basel’s crucial voice, then there is value in stepping aside.

I am deeply saddened by humankind’s capacity to wage war. We’re living in troubled times and the impact of the war in Gaza and Israel is profoundly felt in Canada.

It’s unsettling when Canadian theatres cannot be a space for the public to engage in a dynamic exchange of ideas. I believe theatre must be a place where contrasting perspectives are programmed and celebrated. Now more than ever, we need to listen to each other, engage in different viewpoints, and find our shared humanity.

— Christopher Morris, Playwright of The Runner

Watch the trailer for The Runner.

PuSh fest expects disappointment, anger, and sadness

PuSh is deeply grateful to these two artists who have had the courage and grace to share their words with us and with the public.

We understand and anticipate the disappointment, anger and sadness that may come from our communities with regard to the process leading up to and/or outcome of this decision. As leaders, we continue to strive for a balance between leading and listening. We hold as fundamental a value of inter-cultural exchange and, moving forward, we endeavor to both be in more fulsome dialogue with our artists leading up to the Festival, and to facilitate relationships between these artists as we build our program, so that dialogue can exist within a foundation of trust and understanding.

Gabrielle Martin, Director of Programming

Keltie Forsyth, Director of Operations

The Push International Performing Arts Festival runs from January 20 to February 3. For tickets and more information, visit the website.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.