Dunya Production’s latest project, “The Return,” comes in the form of a one-act, 75-minute play about two people who meet in an auto-body shop in the mid-sized Israeli city of Herzilya, a high-tech suburb of Tel Aviv. In fact, the play’s cast only consists of these two characters: an Israeli Jewish woman (Anna Daines) and a Palestinian man (Tristan Johnson). By Seattle-based playwrights Edward Mast and Hanna Eady, who is Palestinian, “The Return” starts with a question: the woman asks the man, a mechanic, if he is open on the Sabbath. The woman on stage grows more relentless with each question, each one more bizarre. She asks him, getting in both his face and the audience’s, if they let him work on “army jeeps.”
This tension is aided by the intimate set. The stage is a small space at the center of the theater with canvas cascading above. The lights cast off colors of purple, gray and white as our two characters face across from each other.
Throughout this first scene, the woman is accusatory and invasive, while the repairman is firm yet always very polite. While he is good at keeping a poker face, he gives away what he is holding back. He begins to recognize her even as he tries to keep her from realizing who he is. Sounds of noise, clashing music and cars transition to make their history clearer. Not only do they know each other — they share a tragic and romantic past. The man claims he’s rehabilitated after he went to prison for committing a crime against the woman. He is apologetic for his crime and just wants to live a normal life with no trouble. She suspects that he was mistreated in jail and decries his sentence. The man argues that it is for the best and fit for the crime. And in a moment of frustration, she cries that if his crime is really a crime, half the men in Brooklyn would be in jail.
What is the crime? Pretending to be something you’re not to have sex with someone, but the particularity of the crime in “The Return” makes it explicit that he was punished as a Palestinian man lying to an Israeli woman about being Israeli. The tone of his punishment reflects something particular about the Palestinian experience. He can’t express anything about Palestine; he has had his tattoo removed and he is under constant surveillance.
It’s clear he wants peace and quiet, but the woman who has accused him feels deep guilt and seeks him out in her search for atonement. The trial opened the woman’s eyes to the inequality of treatment of Palestinians in Israel, but she still does not recognize the immediate fear the Palestinian man faces every day. She blindly ignores his warning, leading to dangerous ends. “The Return” is unflinching and candid. It’s, yes, a break-up story, but it’s also a larger, more heart-breaking story. It spans beyond the two characters and their conflict to represent something larger. The story has layers of betrayal — betrayal by someone, betrayal by the institution, betrayal by your own self.
The play doesn’t shy away from commenting on oppression and privilege; the woman has good intentions, but even those are from a place of privilege. She insists she can fix the trial sentencing, but he asks her repeatedly to just leave everything alone, including him. Even her outrage displays privilege. This is his life — something he has struggled for longer than the woman has. He has been beaten down for years, while this awakening for her began about seven years ago. Her outrage is fresh and new, not the exhausting burden the man carries.
Up close and direct, “The Return” asks the audience: When we seek redemption, who is it for? When we help, are we also listening? It demands the audience's vulnerability.
This quality persists through the production, as Daines and Johnson are intensely vulnerable in their performances. Their energy comes together when they sit on a bench in the middle of the stage, a design created by both director Josh Vreeke and co-writer Hanna Eady. The lights by Adem Hay and sound design by Raymann Hill also play together to bring to reality the increasing pressure of the story, playing along its crescendo and finale.
“The Return” touches deeply on colonial guilt and its witnesses. For me, what makes this message so prescient is not only its commentary on the everyday violence of settler colonialism that Palestenians endure in Israel, but also what was happening in the world as I sat for this production on Nov. 12. That night was the 37th in a row that Israel had indiscriminately bombarded Gaza with bombs, rockets and missiles. No place is safe — not the hospitals, not the shelters, not the schools. Every place has been bombed and, by that day, the toll exceeded 10,000 dead Palestinian citizens. As I finish this review and check the news, the toll is closer to 12,000 people dead.
Videos of Palestinian children holding press conferences fill my news feed, as do reports of new terms such as WCNSF, meaning “Wounded Child, No Surviving Family.” We are witness to the Gaza genocide, and we now stand in front of it, just like the woman in the play realizing the horrors of Israeli surveillance, wondering where do we go from here?
The play’s run at Cherry Village Street marks its Seattle premiere, and while it was set to close this past weekend, new show dates have been added to meet demand, with Dec. 1’s ticket proceeds going to Palestinian Children's Relief Fund. So from now until Dec. 3, don’t miss this production of “The Return:” It will be uncomfortable, it will grasp your gaze and it will remain with you hours after the lights dim.
Andrea Paz is a writer, DJ and multimedia artist in Seattle. Find her on Twitter at @divergentfemme.
Read more of the Nov. 22–28, 2023 issue.