A Step Forward

New work by Eugene playwright explores tensions between Palestinians and Israelis

In a world of constant political tension and polarized opinions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Martin Cohen’s new play Checkpoint seeks to bridge the gap of hate and misunderstanding by highlighting the comparable emotional toll of individuals on both sides.   

The play, directed by Robert Hirsh, opens Feb. 1 at the Wildish Theater. The story is based on the 70-year conflict between Palestine and Israel. 

Cohen has always loved to write. After being raised in New York City, he spent most of his career as a psychologist practicing in Los Angeles and Eugene, living in Eugene for the last 20 years. At 60, he went back to school at the University of Oregon to get his master’s in English. Now retired, Cohen continued with his passion for creative writing and, at 73, he has written a book and several plays. 

Checkpoint weaves modern issues into plot ideas similar to Homer’s Iliad. The story follows an Israeli family who has lost two sons to the war; a third son is being held for ransom by a Palestinian. The main action of the play is the Jewish family trying to find a way to receive their son’s body for a Jewish burial.

Cohen hopes to highlight the moral issues the families face during the occupation of Palestine. 

“It was as if we were to receive rockets from Seattle to Eugene: What would we be feeling?” Cohen says. 

Cohen was inspired to write Checkpoint after observing conflict in everyday society. He drew on his experience living in Israel for a year and a half in the 1970s to come up with the plot. While in Israel, he had friends who worked hard to diminish tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. 

“There is a lot of hate going on, a lot of misunderstanding,” Cohen says. “Nobody listening to one another.”

Checkpoint was a semifinalist in Ashland’s New Play Festival in 2017, selected within the top 20 out of 400. 

Cohen spent eight months writing the play and another year and a half revising it. 

Checkpoint has a cast of 11, with actors such as Bary Shaw as the high official in the Israeli government and Kari Welch as the daughter of an Israeli official. Cohen has been surprised at how well the actors and crew are working together. 

“This is a dream cast because of how good the actors are,” he says. 

 Cohen hopes the play provokes new thoughts between Israelis and Palestinians who watch it. So far he has received both positive and negative feedback. Cohen says he has heard from Jewish people who believe his play is too much in favor of the Palestinians and from Palestinians who believe it is too much in favor of the Israelis.

“It makes them uncomfortable,” Cohen says. “You need to be uncomfortable before you feel comfortable.”

He doesn’t expect anyone to change their opinion, but wants to start conversations between the two groups of people and others outside the conflict, who, like the opposing characters in the play, can hopefully take meaningful steps toward understanding one another. 

 “That’s the most important thing,” he says. “To show them as human beings is that it doesn’t have to continue to be like this.”

Checkpoint opens 8 pm Feb. 1 at the Wildish Theater in Springfield and runs the following three weekends through Feb. 17, with Sunday matinees at 2 pm. 

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