Christopher Morris as Jacob in The Runner. (photo by Dylan Hewlett)
Since this article was published, PuSh has canceled the production. For the statement, click here.
The Belfry Theatre in Victoria has removed Christopher Morris’s play The Runner from its 2024 lineup. I can see why it did so – the threats of violence are real, and scary. But it was the wrong decision.
“The Belfry Theatre presents contemporary work, with ideas that often generate dialogue. That is why, a year ago, we decided to bring the much-acclaimed play, The Runner, to Victoria. However, we believe that presenting The Runner at this particular time does not ensure the well-being of all segments of our community,” reads the Jan. 2 statement.
Last month, a petition was started to remove the one-man play about an Israeli rescue worker whose life is forever changed after he helps an Arab woman, who may have stabbed an Israeli soldier to death, before attending to the soldier. A counter-petition was started by members of the Jewish community to keep The Runner at the theatre. At press time, the protest petition had more than 1,400 signatures, while the counter-petition had more than 2,400.
The Belfry Theatre invited people to come and discuss any issues surrounding the play. That Dec. 22 meeting dissolved into chaos, overtaken by protesters with bullhorns and anti-Israel signs. The Belfry building was subsequently vandalized with multiple stickers that said “trash” and anti-Israel sentiments, topped off with a red-spray-painted “Free Palestine.”
The threat of more violence – implied by the aggressiveness of the protesters at the December meeting and the defacement of the theatre’s building – was probably a main reason for the Belfry canceling the show. It seems that the protesters have successfully bullied the theatre into changing its programming. Instead of contributing to a safe space in which ideas could be presented, considered, discussed, perhaps agreed upon, perhaps not, the protesters have created an atmosphere of fear. They have put other creatives on notice – unless you reflect only what we believe, we will shut you down.
By succumbing to the pressure, the Belfry has perhaps protected its staff and its building – the importance of which cannot be understated – but a dangerous precedent has been set. On the larger world stage, we have seen how screaming down other viewpoints, vandalism and worse violence, misrepresentation and misinformation, can win the day. The success of such tactics in Victoria is another reminder, if we needed one, of how easily freedoms can be removed. How easily voices can be silenced.
Accuracy and context matter, and the petition includes neither.
The petition describes The Runner as “a story of Israeli settlers in a dehumanizing exercise of whether Palestinian and Arab life is of value.” Its writers “demand[ed]” the Belfry “remove The Runner from [its] 2024 lineup,” claiming that it “features the violent and racist rhetoric of Zionism from an exclusively Israeli perspective.” They cite two unattributed, non-contextualized sentences from the script that ostensibly support their position.
The play is not about Israeli settlers, it does not celebrate Israeli settlers or militant Zionism. Jacob – a volunteer from Jerusalem with ZAKA (Israel’s nongovernmental rescue and recovery organization) – is the main character, the hero, the one the audience is rooting for, along perhaps with the Arab woman he helps save.
The quote chosen by the petitioners is spoken by Ari, Jacob’s brother, who is portrayed as a rabid settler nationalist. He is a jerk, and an awful brother. People like Ari do exist, but one of the points of the play seems to be that he is not the model human, that his views are not what people should think.
The petitioners have one aspect of the play almost correct: it does focus on Israeli perspectives (plural), as the main character is Israeli, and so are his mother and brother, and his colleagues. And I will admit that I had trouble with this aspect of the play, too. I felt that The Runner only asked questions about Israelis’ morality, that it disparaged Jews’ claims to the land, that it depicted every Israeli character other than Jacob harshly. While terrorism is shown, the terrorist characters aren’t held to any account, in my view, and there are no moral demands made of them.
I am proud that the petition to keep The Runner in the Belfry’s lineup was initiated by members of the Jewish community. I believe in Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, at the same time as I believe in the right of people to criticize, question and protest. In a democratic country, I don’t see the need to attack people or destroy property to voice an opinion, especially not about the arts. It is no wonder there are multiple conflicts taking place around the world – even in Canada, where we enjoy multiple freedoms and are relatively rich in resources, we find it challenging to be open, civil and respectful of diversity.
If The Runner had encouraged violence or discrimination, I might have signed a petition against it, too, and even joined a rally, but I hope that I would have chosen to critique it instead, to share my point of view instead of trying to silence Morris’s. I certainly would not have chosen to threaten or commit violence against people or property.
Several aspects of The Runner bother me, but I think it is an excellent piece of work because it has taken up more of my brain space than almost any other play, movie or performance that I’ve seen or book or article I’ve read. It has made me angry, thoughtful, sad, and I continue to contemplate my various reactions. It has literally kept me up at night. In this respect, Morris has done his job extremely well. People should see this play. I sincerely hope the bullies will not succeed in silencing the PuSh Festival’s presentation of it as well.
For my interview with Christopher Morris, click here. To read statements about the Belfry Theatre’s decision to remove The Runner from its lineup, click here. For more on the Victoria situation, see thecjn.ca/news/runner-play-victoria.