Character Study

Gloria Imseih Petrelli

Joy is an Honoring of Struggle

Gloria Imseih Petrelli (she/they) is a Palestinian-Italian-American theatre artist and community organizer who has devoted their life to challenging and making room in the American canon for voices often talked over: mixed voices, Arab voices, queer voices, political voices.

I met with Gloria to discuss the current state of Chicago theatre amidst the ongoing humanitarian crisis and occupation of Palestine. Gloria generously shared their thoughts on the necessity of art in a political movement, and the transformative power of magic and beauty created in collaboration, concluding that the struggle for liberation is best honored through the artistic expression of joy.

GIP: When I began pursuing theatre in Chicago, I sought to be an agent of both art and activism. It felt very obvious to me that each had so much to learn and teach from the other. But I realized quickly that organizing and politics demands a bravery that sometimes commercial art does not allow. So I became disenchanted with the status quo of arts institutions and the powers that be. That's when I found political organizing with the US Palestinian Community Network. Everyone who I met there—they were the ones who reminded me that art is important. I found out about political artists who had devoted their entire body of work to movements and causes they cared about.

It was not the art space that reminded me politics were important. It was the political space that reminded me that art was necessary.

And I'm so grateful for that because if I had not found USPCN, specifically, I probably would not have continued. They reminded me that art is always political and always part of every movement.

Are there a lot of artists involved at USPCN?

Yeah. Visual artists and poets and musicians. I think I was their first shiny little actor and playwright. But it was people who are just consumers of art who reminded me that what I was doing was important. And specifically that being Palestinian in any art space was a political act.

I am often the first Palestinian person people ever meet. So I am often setting the tone for what it is to be a Palestinian artist. Which sucks, but is also an amazing opportunity. Even little stuff like putting “donate to USPCN” in a bio in a playbill. Even tiny little acts are revolutionary because this world has sought to silence the voices of Palestinians for the past 75 years. Especially in a place like Chicago where there are so many of us, I am reminded that it is a noble act to continue being unapologetically Palestinian.

Do you feel like that realization empowered your art? Or are there ways that your art resists becoming political, creating a challenge for you?

No, it creates a framework with which I create everything. Because of my politics, there are things I will do and things I will not do. There are places I will work and there are places I will not work. There are stipulations that I get to make and if they are not honored, I get to say, "Well, I'm gone, and for these reasons. Such and such institution is refusing to allow truth."

You're describing a censorship that is imposed externally by an institution. Is there an internal censorship obliging you to meet a certain political expectation of your work?

I wouldn't call it censorship because it's my moral compass. It's my value system.

I became a better artist once I was able to name and outline my values. Having a specific north star—which is decolonization, anti-imperialism, the liberation of all oppressed peoples—is the thing that has liberated me. I feel that I am a stronger, more effective artist because I have the value system that I have.

Can you describe the ways that theatre, as an art form, allows you to engage this part of yourself?

The thing I never stop believing in is magic and beauty. No matter where you are in the world, no matter who sees what you’re doing, those are the things that keep us alive as humans.

But this is what I’m struggling with right now. I don’t think theatre has done a good job to meet the moment. Not one theatre has called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Theatre, as it is right now, is failing. To say that publicly, as a person who is still actively auditioning and submitting my shit around, maybe that’s not a great idea. But I don’t care. Because cultural institutions have power.

Victor I. Cazares is not taking their HIV medication until the New York Theatre Workshop says “ceasefire.” And they have ignored them completely. An actor doing a play called The Chinese Lady in Florida was fired for bowing in a keffiyeh, which is our traditional scarf of resistance. And I was like, oh fuck, this is more important than ever.

The type of people who see regional theatre or fancy-wherever theatre in the Chicagoland area are the people that need convincing. I don’t know anyone on the worker side of this art that needs convincing. It’s the donor class. We have a literal platform—a stage—with which to say important things. But donor money is more important, I guess? I’ve really appreciated being welcomed into the bigger institutions, but you cannot love me without loving my people because my people and their liberation are my north star.

Right now theatre is failing, but I still want to do it forever. I love it, and to love something is to look at it thoroughly and critique it with your whole heart.

I want to ask you how the arts institutions can improve. But I also want to dig deeper into the art form itself. What is it possible for live theatre to accomplish?

Every major institution needs to call for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine. They can stop platforming plays that continue to put my people into a box. That is a simple step they can take.

As for the art form, I don’t know that I can put words to what needs to happen. But the thing that keeps me addicted to theatre is gathering a bunch of people in a room for a purpose.

The most radical thing in the world, in my opinion, is the magic that exists when a bunch of people are in a room for an intention. Theatre has the potential to harness that magic and change minds and hearts. I know because I have left rooms completely changed.

I don’t know what’s next. I intend to keep writing magical political plays. But I think more important than the writing, or the form, or artistic trends, is just the continued commitment to being in space together. Allowing interesting, and vulnerable, and heart forward conversations. Being together and challenging our audiences to leave more open-hearted than they were when they came in. That’s really all I need. It may not be happening institutionally, but it is happening. I believe in it immensely. I believe in it as much as I believe in liberation.

Your belief goes deep enough to say that the actual gears of the heart can be moved by the group experience of theatre.

That is the only thing I know to be true.

That’s pretty ambitious.

If the collaborators, the people making the thing, all want to do that, no matter how many different ways they come at it, I think it’s the truest most possible thing in the world.

Let me try to get a little more specific on how that’s possible. Simply presenting a political opinion in the form of a play probably can’t do what you’re describing.

No, certainly not.

So what are the other ingredients that somehow reach us deeper?

You can just have a sign: "Free Palestine." Done. Play over. Or you can have music. Poetry. Lights, movement, dance. I think of the things in my life which have moved me, that have been magical and beautiful. It happens through music and poetry and movement. Music, with the intention of a person who wants to unlock hearts. Movement, choreographed by a person who wants to unlock hearts.

The harmony that happens between collaborators' ideas.

True liberatory collaboration on a political piece with people who want to make the thing flow the way that it should. It sounds easy and trite, but it’s true. Coming together with people who want to make something different.

The best art I ever made I was paid nothing for. I was invited to join a theatre company called The Neighborhood Theatre with Maiya Corral and a bunch of our friends. And our pandemic tragedy was a musical that we were creating together. We had people who could play seven instruments and we had people who were like, I’m on tambourine. And we made songs by just being together. Being vulnerable and asking people to do their best to check fear at the door.

Is it possible for an artist to distance their art from the political, not out of apathy, but as a form of resistance to the forced politicization of their life? There’s something about that idea that makes sense to me, but also something that makes me uncomfortable. To experience and take pleasure in artistic beauty amidst a very real crisis—I often feel guilty. How do I reconcile this?

The hit-you-over-the-head-with-politics art I find a little annoying. I mean, I think it’s important, obviously…

But it’s ineffective.

Yeah, it is ultimately. But everything, no matter what, is political. And the point of a cultural revolution is to start contextualizing ourselves in relation to our communities, not in relation to the state.

As you described, theatre creates community.

The word "community" is one of those words now. What are we even talking about? What does that mean? Re-contextualize community as the people who you are affected by. The people who affect you. Not necessarily the people you share an identity with, but the people in your neighborhood, the people who could come see your play. Grassroots change, grassroots organizing and activism, really is the only thing that truly works. Grassroots art, grassroots friendship, grassroots figuring out how to be together. We are losing our ability to be together. And that only makes the state stronger. But when working people talk, awesome shit happens for us.

So much of political art has crept into mainstream media. I’m thinking of turning on HBO and it’s like, “Black Voices.” And there’s a couple characters from a couple shows and you’re like - what’s going on?

What is going on? Yeah. I think that sort of thing really does only help the powers that be, unfortunately. Because we go, "Oh my god, they’ve got a black play, a queer play, a brown play. They’re good." The iconography placates people.

Representation is totally important. Seeing Mo Amer’s show on Netflix was awesome. I loved it. He could stand to write women better, and if he reads this, hit a girl up. But there was a wedding scene where the guy sings the same song from Palestine that my grandfather used to sing at weddings. That was emotionally moving. It was effective and it was beautiful. Does it change anything? No. Should we stop doing it? Also no. But it’s the commodification of political art. Capitalism breeds vapid iconography that placates the masses.

That kind of stuff can be an entry point to new ideas for certain people.

Exactly. And that’s important.

But it’s important that we be honest about what it is, and is not, achieving.

I am not under any sort of pretense that my art will free Palestine. But it is with that in mind that I continue to make it.

Leila Khaled said that revolution must mean life also. Emma Goldman said, “I don’t want your revolution if there is no dancing.” That is important to me.

I like that quote. It’s easy for me to become really serious about everything. But the joyfulness that can be present in resistance...

That must be present, I would argue. It really is necessary because revolutionary hope and joy is a muscle. It’s a guiding practice. People who got hip to the Free Palestine movement four months ago, some of them are starting to burn out because they’re so mad, and serious. And I get it. I am sitting in Chicago, Illinois on this daybed because of a terrible event. My grandparents were displaced from their home, and that’s why I’m here. But if I was mad about that, and so serious about that every single day, and didn’t allow myself joy, I would be completely useless.

It would have defeated you.

Exactly. My grandfather—the person who was displaced, violently, from his home and had to carry his brother on his back for miles, and had to raise nine kids in a new place—was the most joyful person I knew.

Appreciation for life. That is the point of everything we’re doing. Everyone deserves joy, and art, and love, and the erotic parts of life. Food, and cooking, and being with friends. And that’s what theatre is.

I think that answers what I was trying to get at earlier. You don’t have to ignore the political to embrace the art of pleasure and joy.

They’re simply not mutually exclusive. I will not allow them to be.

You said earlier, "dance, lights, music, poetry." Those are all joyful expressions.

Yeah, they have to be.

So to answer my own question about how art can reach us more deeply, perhaps it’s just joy.

I think that’s it.

Do you feel like your work is joyful? Is that something you, consciously or unconsciously, bring to your work?

I think so. At the very least there’s brevity. I write about people being together. And people don’t get together and not make each other laugh. If you’re writing a play about Arabs and there’s no laughing, you did not write an accurate play about Arabs. And if you disagree with me, you’re wrong.

Even in our worst, lowest moments—in the quiet, private moments—humans find ways to make each other smile and laugh.

Ramadan is coming and they are decorating the tents of the refugee camps with lights. There is an organization called Camps Breakerz which teaches break dancing to kids in the refugee camps. You should definitely donate to them because they were just bombed and they deserve all your money.

In our lowest lows, and our most degrading moments, still we make each other laugh and smile. So my work has joy and brevity. And also I’m kind of an irreverent jokester sort of person. I refuse to take life all that seriously. That’s just part of my practice.

Maybe it’s the lack of humor that can sometimes make political art seem inauthentic.

Yeah because people don’t exist that way. They just don’t.

I get hung up on feeling like it has to be so serious. Because, obviously, the problems of the world are deeply serious.

Yeah, absolutely. But joy can honor the gravity of the moment. I think it’s exploitative to not have joy, especially when things are so dark. Joy is an honoring of struggle.

US Palestinian Community Network
Camps Breakerz: Art from the refugee camps to you
Palestine Legal
Middle East Children's Alliance