A friend of mine, who is a Professor of Jewish Studies, once said to me “saying Israel at a dinner party is like yelling fire in a crowded theatre.” The word alone elicits pandemonium. I’m exaggerating. Kind of. Maybe not scenes of people screaming and running for the exits. But certainly a room engaged in heated debate; family tensions high; friendships tested. For those who love the Jewish state, she is noble and necessary; a harbor for Jews in an inhospitable world. For those who loath the state, Israel is a domineering colonial force built at the expense of another people who, at best live as second class citizens, and at worst live as prisoners in a land they have called home for generations.
Which side are you on? The polemic is tempting. But those of us who traffic in the arts, and particularly in the dramatic arts, know that just beneath the surface of polemic lay the dynamic, robust world of complexity and nuance. That is to say: the messy truth of humanity. There is no black and white. There is no hero and villain in this story. It’s a big stinky muddle of political maneuvering, violent struggle, ethnic allegiance, spiritual yearning, international migration, remarkable success against so many odds, unbearable loss, unending frustration, and so on…
I wrote WRESTLING JERUSALEM to answer the question: How do you feel about what’s going on in Israel? The power and beauty of theatrical storytelling is that it can bring forward a big narrative on human terms. For us in America, the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is usually played out in the headlines and on the television news; in Facebook posts and Tweets; at college campus and civic rallies. It's mostly brief, rarely illuminating and often intellectually thin. But real human beings live inside this conflict every day.
WRESTLING JERUSALEM presents a range of voices. There are seventeen different characters in the play. Israeli, Palestinian, American, British, men, women, who each have reflections about their lives that illuminate aspects of the conflict and, hopefully, open our hearts to their perspectives.
It’s a solo performance. The characters are presented by me, as I try to grapple with the complex issues they bring up and understand for myself how to make sense of it all. One kid asked me after a performance, “How do you do all that without going crazy?” I responded with my own question, “How do you know I’m not crazy?” “Good point,” he said. Maybe I am crazy. Or maybe I’m just committed to pushing past the limitations that are presented to us, and that we even accept for ourselves.
The play is enjoying incredible success with a national tour that begins in October at the venerable Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, which is now under the leadership of Joe Haj, the only Palestinian-American Artistic Director of a major theatre in America; then to the Houston JCC; Toronto, where Sara Schwartz Geller, my former partner at Traveling Jewish Theatre, is producing independent work; and Mosaic Theatre of DC, the new venture of Artistic Director Ari Roth who commissioned the play back in 2007; then we head to Perseverance Theatre Company in Alaska; then to New York City for a 4 week run at 59E59 Theatres; and Cleveland Public Theatre.
If that weren’t enough to keep me busy, we’re making a feature film! Shot on location in the desert, in a dressing room before a mirror, and on stage with a live audience, the film, directed by LA based filmmaker Dylan Kussman, will intercut between those spaces and translate the solo performance into cinema. Sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society, the film is a big effort, with a 26 person crew out in the Mojave Desert for 5 days back in May where we got some incredible footage. And a 5 day shoot starting September 29 at Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco where we will film the interior scenes, culminating in a LIVE PERFORMANCE TO BE FILMED October 3.
My team and I are thrilled at the community support that has come together for the filming of the live performance, with co-sponsors from a terrific cross-section of Bay Area arts, faith-based and community organizations. It was a significant step to rent Marines Memorial Theatre, a 560 seat theatre in San Francisco’s theatre district, so we need all the community support we can get! I never dreamed the project would take on the life that it has. I suppose it’s a testament to the fact that people are tired of the status quo, and that we’re all searching for a way forward. WRESTLING JERUSALEM doesn’t provide one solution, but it does offer up the possibility that by deep listening we can better understand one another and, together, find a way to create lasting peace.
For more information on tickets, the tour and the film: wrestlingjerusalem.com