Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Competing petitions spring up over whether Belfry should stage play set in Israel

About 900 people have signed a petition asking the Belfry to remove The Runner from its Spark Festival lineup in March.
web1_vka-cmyk-belfry-1
Graffiti marks the front of the Belfry as protesters demand that it not stage The Runner, a play set in Israel. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Competing petitions have sprung up on whether the Belfry Theatre should stage The Runner, a one-man play that focuses on the experience of a volunteer of ZAKA, an ultra-Orthodox rescue service in Israel.

The play deals with political and community fallout after a person decides to save a Palestinian woman who has been accused of being a perpetrator of violence — and leaving a fatally wounded Israeli soldier behind, according to a description of the play on the Belfry’s website.

As of Monday, about 1,000 people have signed a petition asking the Belfry to remove The Runner from its Spark Festival lineup in March, saying that it is unacceptable to tell a story on violence in the Middle East from an exclusively Israeli perspective while Palestinians are being killed and displaced.

“We are currently witness to the ongoing genocide in Palestine that has killed 20,000+ people including 7,800+ children, and we struggle to understand why the Belfry would choose to centre the voices of the oppressors instead of the oppressed,” the petition said.

In addition to calling for removal of The Runner, the petition calls for a cultural boycott of Israel.

Jonathan Gustin started a counter-petition Saturday calling for the Belfry to honour its commitment to produce The Runner.

Gustin told the Times Colonist that he thinks the play is not anti-Arab or racist after purchasing and reading an e-copy of the play.

As of Monday, the petition to keep the play at the Belfry has garnered close to 900 signatures, with some signers saying they are members of the theatre community in Vancouver and Montreal.

Stickers and graffiti saying “Free Palestine” have been plastered outside the Belfry Theatre entrance in recent days.

The stickers appeared after dozens of pro-Palestine activists walked out of a three-hour community discussion at the Belfry on Friday to stage a protest outside, saying their concerns about the play, were not being heard.

It’s unclear when the spray-paint graffiti, present before the Friday protest, first appeared. Graffiti and wheatpasted posters related to the conflict have been a frequent addition to Fernwood Square in recent weeks.

The Belfry Theatre said earlier that it has been having “many complex conversations” about the production, its content, and the impact the play will have on the community.

“We are taking time to reflect on how best to move forward and will make an announcement in the new year,” the statement said. “We thank those of you who have expressed your convictions, and we are listening.”

Written and performed by Toronto-based artistic director and playwright Christopher Morris, The Runner has been touring on and off in Canada since its debut about five years ago.

In a 2018 interview with theatre website Broadway World, Morris said he wanted to make sure that both the “long history of global antisemitism” and the “persistent denial of the rights of Palestinians” were front and centre in the The Runner.

Morris said then that his play focused on the moral dilemma that unfolded for some ZAKA members when the organization said in 2015 that it would begin treating Jewish victims over the perpetrator of violence, contradicting rules of triage and the Hippocratic oath.

On Saturday, Morris referred questions from the Times Colonist about the play to the Belfry.

This past week, pro-Palestinian activists in Victoria have posted purported snippets of the play on social media, describing some sections as racist and Zionist.

No script of the play to be staged at the Belfry has been made public. A 2020 radio drama of the play jointly produced by CBC and Expect Theatre can no longer be accessed online.

The Belfry, which said it will provide copies of the script at its box office after Jan. 8 when the theatre reopens, could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Ciarán Volke, project lead of the recent Belfry incubator theatre show Game:Play, said he’s disappointed and frustrated by the Belfry leadership.

The care that many art organizations took around programming Russian literature and works at the start of the war in Ukraine, doesn’t seem to be in place here, he said.

In his speech at the start of every Game:Play show, Volke makes it clear why their group, the Secret Shark Collective, is donating some of the show’s proceeds to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

“Our play dealt so much with childhood trauma and allowing children to be children,” he said. “Given the state of things, it didn’t make sense not to [donate].”

mjlo@timescolonist.com

Note to readers: This article was updated on Dec. 25 to include details about a counter-petition and to clarify that some graffiti was present before the Friday protest.