“Theatre that explores the extremes of the human condition”: SesayArts in conversation with Christopher Morris on “The Runner”

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Actor-Playwright Christopher Morris, Artistic Director of Human Cargo

Christopher Morris’ imagination is fueled by socio-political issues. The more morally complex and uncomfortable the issue, the more compelling he finds it . . . and the more probable that it will find its way into his art. His newest play The Runner, currently receiving its world premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille, is a good example. It follows Jacob (played by Gord Rand), a member of the Orthodox Jewish Israeli volunteer force ZAKA (titled in full, “ZAKA – Identification, Extraction and Rescue – True Kindness”), who collect the remains of Jews killed in accidents. In the play, Jacob grapples with the political and moral repercussions of saving a woman’s life.

The one-man show is produced by Human Cargo, of which Mr Morris is Artistic Director, and it clearly fulfils Human Cargo’s mandate to create theatre that “explores the extremes of the human condition, bring new voices to the world stage, and offers diverse perspectives of the human condition”. So, too, did The Road to Paradise, a play about love and loss in the time of war produced in 2015. Based on interviews conducted with families of the Canadian Armed Forces and families of the Pakistan and Afghan Army, it is performed in English/Dari by a cast of Canadian, Afghan and Pakistani actors, and explores the impact of the war in Afghanistan on the lives of women and children. Mr. Morris and Human Cargo are also currently developing The China Project (working title) to premiere in 2020. This play will explore race, love and national identity under the backdrop of China’s emergence on the global stage. It is written by Beijing playwright Zhuang Yi, and will be performed by Canadian and Chinese actors in Mandarin and English.

Human Cargo’s dynamic and provocative body of work results from Mr Morris’ extensive research and close collaborations with international artistic communities. He first travelled to Israel to begin his research on The Runner in 2010. He subsequently returned with director Daniel Brooks in 2016, and most recently with actor Gord Rand, at which point they met with members of ZAKA prior to beginning rehearsals. During these research trips, Morris immersed himself with members of ZAKA and also spent time with the parents of 18 year-old Palestinian suicide-bomber Ayat Al-Akhras – with the intent of experiencing the story from both sides. The Runner re-unites Morris, Brooks and Rand in their third collaboration after Necessary Angel’s production of Hamlet (produced during Brooks’ tenure as Artistic Director), whose cast featured both Morris and Brooks, and their acclaimed 2015 Stratford production of Oedipus Rex.  Sesaya spoke with Mr Morris about the origin of The Runner and his aspirations for it.

  1. Why did you feel that a one-person play would be the best way to tell the the story of ZAKA and the work it does?

Daniel Brooks and Gord Rand in rehearsal for “The Runner”

I first heard about ZAKA in 1991 when I was a high-school student in Markham, Ontario. There was a news report on CBC about a group of Orthodox Jewish men in Israel who were collecting the remains of people killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. They were members of a newly formed group called ZAKA. Over the years, I couldn’t stop thinking about ZAKA and felt that one day it would make a great piece of theatre.

My initial instinct for this play was that it would be in a one-person structure, but over the years I experimented with setting the script in the present tense with multiple characters. Somehow it never felt right. In 2016, I finally returned to my initial instinct and the play really came to life. There needs to be a freedom with time and space and a one-person play allows this.

  1. At what point in your research into ZAKA did you realize that there was a story to be told? And how did spending time with Ayat Al-Akhras’ parents and hearing their perspective inform your script and the way you decided to tell this story?

It became clear to me soon after I first heard about ZAKA that there would be a story to be told in this. In 2010, I made my first research trip to Israel to begin working on the script. On that trip, and over the following three research trips I made (the most recent being in October with actor Gord Rand), I spoke with ZAKA members, met with the Al-Akhras family in the Deheishe refugee camp whose seventeen-year-old daughter blew herself up in a Jerusalem terror attack, and spoke with as many people from all walks of life as possible to learn about what it is like for them living in Israel/the Palestinian Territories.

During the research and writing I embraced the fact that I was a Canadian, with no religious or cultural ties to the region, as it provided an objectivity on my journey deeper into ZAKA and the religious/political currents they exist in. Any play set in Israel has the potential to evoke divisiveness, so it was crucial for me that the entire creative process for this play, and the characters/circumstances within it, be informed by the historic and ongoing prevalence of global anti-Semitism and recognition of the endemic denial of Palestinian rights. I had to hear from all sides in this and do my best to understand it as much as I could. To not do this would not only be a missed opportunity for the script, but would be an insult to everyone who is living in this context every day. Meeting the Al-Akhras family a few times helped me understand why they believed her daughter did what she did, see what living conditions were like in the Deheishe refugee camp, and to understand that after situations like this happen, there are parents who are suffering from losing a child.

  1. Equally resonant is the quotation that you provided for the press release about the struggle for morality within societal influences that continually test it. Can you tell us how the show enlivens this important and pertinent theme, especially for young people in the process of forming their characters and identities?

Gord Rand in rehearsal for “The Runner”

Jacob’s moral dilemma and the dramatic conflict in The Runner both stem from the December 2015 decision by ZAKA to unequivocally disregard a directive from the Israel Medical Association to triage all casualties at a terror scene — including the terrorists who carried out the attack — according to the severity of their wounds.

“We direct ZAKA volunteers to first treat the Jewish victims of a terror attack — without blinking an eye,” ZAKA chairman and founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said. “In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries. If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says ‘He who is merciful to the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful’”.

I imagined that this type of decision might be very hard for some people within ZAKA to follow. And as this policy change is viewed quite favourably amongst the communities that ZAKA members live in, it would make it even harder for someone to publicly stand against something like this.

I want to create theatre that explores the extremes of the human condition. I’m interested in what happens to us when we are pushed to our spiritual, moral and emotional limits because it’s at these times that we see the best, and worst, of what we are. As we slide further down the path of political and social division, now more than ever, we need to champion those who put human decency above tribalism, while knowing full well the consequences they’ll face.

For young people in the process of forming their characters and identities, I want to say that life can become very complicated, but the thing to remember is that we have to be kind to each other; it’s the most important thing.

  1. Tell us about the show itself. What would you like people to know about it, and what aspects should we pay particular attention to?

What’s really exciting about the show is that Gord Rand (the actor) performs continually on a twenty-four foot long treadmill. It’s a pretty exciting thing to see.

  1. The final word is your! What would you like to add?

Gord Rand in rehearsal for “The Runner”

This play is dedicated to Jacob Mueller, a ZAKA member in Israel who passed away in February 2018. He first welcomed me into his home in 2010, and over the years, we spent many hours talking about the experiences he had working with ZAKA, from the harrowing to the profound. He was my beacon of light as I navigated the murky currents of this play. Jacob was a beautiful soul, full of compassion and self-deprecating humor. While passing away from cancer, he was surrounded by his loving family and friends, and in death, was shown the same tenderness and care he offered to so many. With love, Jacob, thank you.

News You Can Use

What: The Runner (world premiere) by Christopher Morris, produced by Human Cargo with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille; Directed by Daniel Brooks; Performed by Gord Rand

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older

When: On stage until December 9, 2018; Run Time: 80 minutes (no intermission)

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille (Main stage), 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON

Info and Ticketshumancargo.ca

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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