The giant, half-century-old Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis has named its new director: Palestinian-American Joseph Haj:
Fifty-one-year-old Haj will become the eighth artistic director of Minneapolis’s Guthrie theatre, one of the largest and most influential non-coastal US theatres. Haj will start the job July 1, when Joe Dowling steps down from a 20-year roll managing the theatre.
A Guthrie news release calls Haj “one of the few Arab-American artistic directors in the country” and marks that he turned his previous theatre company, the Playmakers, into “a place of diversity and inclusion.” The release adds that Haj “has directed projects in a maximum-security prison in Los Angeles, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in rural South Carolina.”
Haj further told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he believes a theatre needs to be responsive to world events. He also told the paper that “Large institutions are like ocean liners. We have trouble being responsive.”
Haj was first an actor, and while he has not primarily been known for Arab-American theatre, he has not shied from it. He played in Raja Shehadeh’s When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, a first-person account of Shehadeh’s experience during the 2002 siege of Ramallah. Haj has also embraced other contemporary theatre, such as the show Rodney King.
In a 2007 interview with the North Carolina-based Indy Week, Haj said that few good plays were exploring “the Palestinian/ Israeli divide” but told the paper that the 2005 drama My Name Is Rachel Corrie “may be the exception that proves the rule.”
More recently, in January 2015, Haj staged Aaron Davidman’s acclaimed Wrestling Jerusalem, saying that, “Now, especially given recent events in Gaza, it is important to once again look at this area of the world, this time through the lens of a Jewish artist/activist.”
The Guthrie has indeed been an ocean liner, sometimes stuck in its well-worn and popular routes. It will be interesting to see if Haj can steer her in a new direction.