The Long View: ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Wrestling Jerusalem is a luminous revelation on the sacred and the profane and the clash between the two.

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

It illuminates the struggle between sacred dreams and profane realities, between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab, over their shared agony, and casts a clarifying light across the land which they both love. Yet it is the land, tragically, which also tears them apart, the land which must be shared, if life ever triumphs over death in that tragic and bloody crossroads that is a shrine and also a battleground for three religions.

This third production in Mosaic’s  inaugural season, Wrestling Jerusalem is a one-man-show sensation that condenses many voices into one, just as an H-bomb fuses atoms into a big bang.

This scorching deep dive into the swirling chaos now at the heart of the Middle East crisis is destined to be highly controversial.  In the more than half-century “Long War” over who shall lay claim to this land, the sole constant has been the endemic enmity, the sorrow and the pity of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs pitted against each other in a hopeless death-grip, stinging each other over and over, like two scorpions in a tiny bottle.

Most important, this production kicks off a powerful five-play series, the just-beginning revival of Ari Roth’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival.  It will be followed with a second “solo” performance, I Shall Not Hate,” beginning January 23rd and running through February 14th.

There’s little doubt that this festival looms large in the restoration of Ari’s personal priority, the just-beginning revival of his festival, which is mostly housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on DC’s bustling, burgeoning hipster-stroll — along the newly-stylish H Street NE “arts corridor.”

The epic struggle at the DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, in 2014 — over whether or not to stage the same festival, in its earlier incarnation there —  triggered the meltdown that led to Roth being fired. All that played out in a feverish mini-drama of its own, with headlines hinting at censorship splashed all over the local newspaper. The casus belli, the act that sparked his dismissal and justified what followed, was when Roth proposed that I Shall Not Hate be included in the festival. When his overseers disagreed, they vetoed the proposal, and the deed was done. By November of 2014, after 18 years at Theater J, Roth was gone.

Now a new day has dawned. Both Theater J and Ari’s new company, the Mosaic Theater Company of DC, are presenting great theater. They co-exist easily now, side-by-side in a community big enough for each of them and welcoming enough for both of them. What led to his ouster is now ante-bellum, ancient history.

Civil wars are never pretty. And squabbling over land, whether at Theater J or in the West Bank, can become contentious and then lethal. Conflict is best of course when big issues are at stake. That’s often not the case in academic politics in a college or university where, as Henry Kissinger once famously explained, the reason why struggles in a faculty senate can become so poisonous is, “because true stakes are so small.”

What Westling Jerusalem does so well is to remind us that the stakes in the struggles between Israel and Palestine are monumental — almost the precise definition of the famous conundrum, the so-called collision between an immovable force and an irresistible object. In this respect, I should declares my own interest. I personally stand with J Street. I am emphatically and relentlessly “pro-Israel” and yet also unreservedly “pro-peace.” As such, we must seek the final solution, the two-state solution, the only solution.

Wrestling Jerusalem, a one-act, one-man tour de force cri-de-coeur, lays it all on the line. Everyone is implicated with guilt. No one is innocent. We are each of us Abraham, ready to sacrifice even our own child in a bloodbath of knife against flesh, amid the gnashing of teeth and the covering in ashes. That’s precisely why this play is so very dangerous.

The play is written and performed by Aaron Davidman, who has been  creating and re-creating it for a decade. In that respect it’s like a Sheherezade story, each re-working being yet another plea to remain alive yet another day, a recognition that life itself is our first imperative, not submission to the dialectics of death, those “powers that be” now in command both in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, the West Bank site of the Palestinian Authority’s rule. There an ambiguous “sovereignty” sits sullen and self-destructive, sometimes almost demented in its indifference to the real suffering of Israelis targeted for knifings and bus-bombings.

The Authority (which bears responsibility but not power) staggers and stumbles always under fraught and debilitating conditions of political subjugation and military occupation by Israel. Meanwhile, the Likud-dominated coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu’s feral regime plots (and plotzes) in its “apartheid”-state effort to divide — with ever-encroaching “settler” incursions into the West Bank — the Arabs into a Palestinian series of divided “Bantustans.” After all, the Likudnik copybook has been clear from the start, inspired by the earlier effort — to quell South Africa’s black super-majority, and Mandela’s ANC resistance — of the Boer-Brit regime in South Africa, and thereby hopefully forever conquer that other people, the Israeli “other,” Palestinians.

But now, back to the play, which is after all the thing here. First comes the admonition.

See Wrestling Jerusalem, it’s just as simple as that!.  And just as complex.

See it if you want to wrestle — like Jacob with the Angel — over who is right and who is wrong, on this contested terrain of what we call “The Holy Land” of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and prepare to be so conflicted that the anguish becomes palpable. You must be ready in Abraham Lincoln’s own words, to get somehow deeper, to those “better angels” of ourselves, and to wrestle with them, so elusive, so close, yet so far.

The show is on tour, so it completes its run through January 14th (no extensions even possible) at Atlas Performing Arts Center — where Mosaic is a resident theater company, a phoenix risen from the the ashes of Roth’s combustible departure from Theater J.

The show is the creation of Aaron Davidman, a playwright, actor, and director, drawn, as he says, “to stories of ethnic history and cultural complexity that challenge our assumptions of the ‘other.'” Davidman served for years — from 2002-2011– as director of the Traveling Jewish Theater (TJT) in San Francisco, where he conceived, co-wrote, and directed the international collaboration Blood Relative, the story of how the Israeli and Palestinian story became so ferociously and thus far at least so indissolubly knotted together.

It was to Davidman that Roth turned, while still at Theater J, when he commissioned the writing of what has evolved since 2006 as Wrestling Jerusalem. Supported in part by Theater J, TJT, and the Sundance Institute, the show received its world premiere in San Francisco in the spring of 2014. The play is now on its national tour, with an important pit stop in Washington as a special nod to Ari Roth. It is also being made into a feature film.

How many “personalities” does Davidman assume while on stage in this ventriloquistic one-acter, which plays for just over 80 minutes, with no intermission, in a pell-mell, freight-train-express rush to non-judgment, but instead to empathy and to hope?  Some have counted only 12. But Resident Director Jennifer Nelson herself told me that she counts 27 characters in the Davidman monologue-cum-soliloquy.Really it’s more like a multilogue/travelogue, a trip down a tortured memory lane.

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Like the multiple-personaltiy-disorder victim in the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve, which won an Oscar for Joanne Woodward, some of these voices might be less anchored, less believable. But somehow, through the alchemy of art, each of the many voices are, although it may sound impossible, nevertheless voiced equally, passionately, credibly, by Davidman into an interwoven tapestry of testimony, not a Tower of Babel. For each of the voices, there is a demand to be heard. But should these voices be deemed real? Or possibly should they instead be seen and heard merely as a cacaphony of voices, hallucinatory even, in the head of one troubled man — a man like Hamlet, tormented by doubt, caught in the tentacles of a divided soul, “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” irresolute, unsure, pleased to find shelter even in denial.

Davidman’s central figure is after all trying to comprehend the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through his own divided psyche. Yet he also exults nevertheless in the argumentative community of Jewry. The angst cannot be evaded, since there is a central Catch-22 lurking in this very Jewish argumentation, in the very struggle to reconcile justice for all — through a bargain over “land for peace” — with a trade-off that is literally existential, the imperative since the Holocaust of the singular survival of Israel, as a people hemmed in all sides by enemies using tunnels from beneath the land and terror from the sky and bent single-mindedly on its destruction.

Davidman presents the debates in fragments, a stream of interrupted consciousness, bobbing and weaving (and dancing at times) through a blur of characters, somewhat reminiscent perhaps of those faces seen by the poet Ezra Pound in 1912 in the Paris Metro, and then condensed by him into one of his most famous poems, “In a Station of the Metro,” first published in 1913. In only 14 lines, without so much as a verb, Pound painted with impressionistic visuality this haunting image of splintered reality:

                     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
                           Petals on a wet, black bough.

Just listen to these voices, to a few of their cries and whispers: “It’s complicated,” begins Davidman as he dances his way to the stage. “You might say it all happened in 1948, the Nabka, or the War of Liberation.”

The first reference, to the Nabka, is of course an Arabic word meaning “day of catastrophe” — generally celebrated on May 15, the day after the second reference, to the Israeli day of independence. To Palestinians it signifies their displacement from their narrative land, following the Israeli war for independence in 1948.

“No, you might say,” continues Davidman, “it was 1947, the UN partition,” that attempt to cut the Holy Land in half, giving a piece to the new nation of Israel and the remainder to Arab nations, primarily Egypt and Jordan.

“No, it’s the wall.” Then, “No, it’s Iran — it’s all about Iran.”  Then, “No, if J Street would just be less critical.” And on and on, as one by one, it’s a series of rabbit-holes, all vying to be where to begin. In other words, begin anywhere, it’s your choice. It’s one big tangled mess, but it all turns on the perspective of Israel, presented by Davidman as a person, literally “the one who wrestles with God.”

Amid all the shape-shifting of the Davidman series of characters there come the technical elements, which are stunning, superb, riveting, almost characters themselves in the narrative. The sound design, by Bruno Louchouarn, forms an unobtrusive yet essential backdrop. He also composed the original score, at times creating a discordant “wall,” like the wall built around Israel, a wall of percussive force, sometimes even incorporating sounds of explosions and splintering glass, an eerie echo of the Kristallnacht, its own name coming from those shards of shattered glass littering the streets after that night of terrible tragedy in Germany and Austria in 1938, carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces, who smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops, who looted and burned, as German authorities looked on without intervening. And the death toll of this Nazi pogrom climbed into the hundreds.

And hovering over every moment is the awful catastrophe of the Holocaust, of the boxcars and ovens, so ghastly as to leave us silent before its massive horrors, the silence evoked by George Steiner in his seminal book about this horror, Language and Silence, in 1967. Yet we must use words, however inadequate, to depict this horror. After all, “never again” are words.

The trauma of such awful events, explains Davidman, contributes to the PTSD characteristic of victims of anti-Semitism, who submerge within themselves the slaughter of many Jews and the survival of others, of the hell of the Holocaust, and the haven of the Promised Land, where one can take a stand and declare, “never again.” But it is also an awful angst that gnaws at the human spirit, as it eats into the fiber of being, as “recycled trauma,” or what Davidman calls “an infecting void carried in the body.”

“To end it,” he says, “we must know trust, that we are safe.” The trauma must be exorcised. “It must,” he says, “be released.” It is a worthy commandment, yes, but how can it be fulfilled, in the daily drama of Intifada and suicide-bombers bearing belts of explosive metal, boarding buses and pushing their way into street-side cafes, and the indignity of checkpoints and the demand by officers of the Israeli Defense Force to Palestinians: “where are your papers?  where are your papers?”

It is the ancient DNA of trauma, recycled through three generations of refugee camps, three generations of brutal occupation, of bull-dozing homes, destroying olive groves, and also a decade and more of Intifada, the feral days of long-repressed rage boiling over with rock-throwing and then lethal targeting of the Israeli military and indiscriminately also hurling death at innocent civilians.

“The basic question is, are we in a war or not?” This question hovers in the air when one of Davidman’s characters, an officer in the Israeli Defense Force, wrestles within the morality of what they must do. “We must destroy the tunnels … It’s us or them!”

And so it goes, as Davidman shape-shifts his way through the many characters, both Jewish and Arab, channeling them, then moving on, as each image becomes for a moment a kind of Rorschach test, each face another inkblot to reveal how we project onto others our own worst fears and anxieties. “What do you see? What does it mean?” These are the questions Davidman asks us to ponder. Is it real? Or is it just agit-propaganda — whether from semi-fascistic Hamas or the clerical fascism of Iranian-allied Hezbollah or from the rancid racism of land-grabbing Likud?

Nearly hypnotic at times, always charismatic, hyper-active, funny, earthy, uncouth, Davidman literally embodies each of the discordant fragments, all set forth on a spare stage, with a simple backdrop the only real prop, in its tapestry of changing colors and abstract forms, shaped by lighting designer Allen Willner. The director, Michael John Garces — the Artistic Director of the Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-engaged ensemble in Los Angeles, — has a sure hand at the wheel, keeping Davidman always on point.

And the point remains the challenge of the Jewish “Tikkun olam,” literally, “repair the world,” the broken world, the world of broken glass and burnt-out hopes. “We don’t accept the world as it is,” says Davidman; instead, the goal becomes “the sanctity of all life.”

At the end, Davidman quotes Jacob, “I have wrestled with angels all night.”  This is the Jacob of Genesis, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, who was in fact renamed “Israel,” literally, “He who struggles with God.” The image appears throughout art and literature, in Charles Wesley’s hymn often known as “Wrestling Jacob” to, in our day, in plays like “”Angels in America,” by Tony Kushner in 2003.

“Please God,” Davidman prays, “help me, help us — I cannot contain the fragments, I am exploding into a million shards,” as he peers into the future, hoping to see in Jerusalem “a city of peace.”

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

But in truth there seems little path forward today, with an entrenched Netanyahu, bolstered in the recent election by a strengthened coalition majority in the Knesset., and by a hapless and often sullen Palestinian leadership, sharply split by so-called moderates in the West Bank and the murderous thugs of Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli cabinet ministers meanwhile are moving to suppress voices of accommodation and negotiation for a two-state solution, in what is basically a crack-down on pro-peace groups in Israel, by imposing new disclosure requirements on nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding, deepening the toxic divide between so-called “liberals” and their hawkish opponents. In a recent Associated Press report from Jerusalem, critics say that the regulations are meant to stifle dovish organizations critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tough policy towards the Palestinians. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog calls the bill a “muzzling law” that would bring about “thought police.” A main target appears to be “Breaking the Silence,” a group of former Israeli combat soldiers who criticize Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank.

In this country, J Street, one of the sponsors of the Mosaic Theater Company’s “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival, announced on January 11th, together with the New Israel Fund, a campaign to oppose what they called, referring to the clamp-down on Israeli non-governmental organizations, the “anti-NGO bill.” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street — a group formed in 2008 to oppose the stranglehold on U.S. policy in the Middle East by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — warned that the bill “has a strong chance of becoming law.”

In a J Street blog, the measure is called “a looming threat to Israeli democracy” and “a direct challenge to Jewish Americans who care about Israel.” Ben-Amni quotes a columnist in Haaretz, Chami Shalev, calling it a frontal assault on the democratic soul of the state of Israel, but one “being met by a deafening silence from most of the American Jewish community’s established leadership,” which he called “the great betrayal.

There are, however, shards of hope.

On January 13th, Ben-Ami launched a major drive to pressure President Obama to take executive action for peace in the Middle East during his final year in office. “Though a final agreement may not be within reach, there are concrete actions the President can take to preserve hope for a two-state solution.” Specifically, J Street wants the President to review potential executive actions including “giving force to U.S. opposition to settlements” and “putting forth parameters to guide future negotiations.”

Photo by Hamde Abu Rahme.
Photo by Hamde Abu Rahme.

One sign of green shoots of peace and reconciliation also crops up here in DC itself. Inspired in part by the group Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of national denomination groups including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants,  a local church, Calvary Baptist Church, at 733 8th Street NW, one-half block from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Station, has opened its doors to host “the Nabka Museum Project.” The exhibit subtitle is, “Art in the Midst of Despair, the Voices of Palestinian Refugees.” The exhibit, which runs from January 15 – February 28th, features artwork and photos by artists living in refugee camps, artists such as Wael Abu Yahes, who says, “My parents were displaced from Al Kobo village in Jerusalem in 1948.” He was born twenty hears later, and has lived in the Dheisheh refugee camp ever since. As a painter he is a colorist. “Art is a nonviolent way of telling our unheard stories to the world, and colors express our suffering on a deeper level than words could ever convey.”

The exhibit is free and open to the general public. It is open Sunday and Monday 10 AM – 8 PM and Saturdays from 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM. For more information send a message to [email protected] or call 202-499-8959.

Finally, Ari Roth and his Community Engagement Committee have planned a whole series of community involvement and outreach events during the course of the five-play series.  Here are details for these events

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

3786_1665127717108185_7395744814471300135_nWrestling Jerusalem plays through January 24, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Review: ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by Robert Michael Oliver.

Magic Time! A Look at ‘Wrestling Jerusalem at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by John Stoltenberg.

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David Hoffman
David Hoffman is a freelance writer and consultant based in Washington, DC, where he specializes in politics but also reviews theater, film, visual arts, dance and music for several local publications. Politically he leans to the left-of-center "social democratic" impulse. He worked for 12 years as field coordinator and then associate director of public affairs for the large public sector union AFSCME. He helped to direct news media relations for Census 2000 while at the US Census Bureau from 1997 to 2001. He worked on Capitol Hill from 1976 to 1982 as press secretary and senior legislative assistant to then-Congressman (now US Senator) Edward Markey (D-MA). He later also worked in the presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2003-2004 and the Senate campaign of Jim Webb in Virginia in 2006. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, David graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a BA in history and went on to earn graduate degrees -- an MA in history from Columbia University, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow; a B. Phil in politics from Oxford University, where he was a William Morris Fellow; and completed most of the requirements for an Ed.D in higher education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. For three years he taught history at Franconia College, in Franconia, N.H.


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