A&E


Man vs. Israel/Palestine

'Wrestling Jerusalem' grapples with the ongoing conflict

Don't expect to hear the voices of screaming Israeli settlers or Palestinian would-be suicide bombers in "Wrestling Jerusalem." Aaron Davidman's one-man drama, in which he plays 17 characters with myriad views of the Mideast conflict, is more nuanced.

"It's not a piece out of the headlines," said Davidman during a recent phone interview from Berkeley. "None of these characters can be pigeon-holed. Everyone is complex."

While arguments continue to rage over who has the right to the land of Israel and the territories and who is victimizing whom, "this play is offering to go past those arguments," Davidman said. "This play is saying there's more to it than just that. There are human beings here. There are more than two sides."

When audiences attend "Wrestling Jerusalem" on Sunday evening, Sept. 20, at Palo Alto's Oshman Family JCC, Davidman hopes they will experience "this range of perspectives."

Over the course of nearly a decade, the playwright and actor interviewed dozens of Israeli Jews, Americans, Palestinians and human rights workers, listening to their stories and trying to understand. In "Wrestling Jerusalem," he plays a religious Jewish settler, a Palestinian human rights activist, a Holocaust survivor, a Palestinian who was wounded by an Israeli soldier, a mother whose son was killed in a bus bombing and a somatic psychologist who specializes in trauma. In addition, Davidman, 48, speaks in his own voice, offering the perspective of an American Jewish outsider, born after Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

His ultimate goal, he said, is for theatergoers to discard their talking points and listen.

"The whole project has changed me," he explained. "I feel pretty strongly that the way the play is working on people is opening them up to witnessing the humanity of the other."

The 85-minute theater piece, directed by Michael John Garcés, began a work-in-progress run in March 2014 and has since toured the country. After his Palo Alto appearance, Davidman will take the show to San Francisco, followed by runs in Minneapolis, New York, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. and Houston.

"Wrestling Jerusalem" is also being made into a film, incorporating scenes filmed in a desert, in Davidman's dressing room and on stage. With funding from a Kickstarter campaign, Davidman hopes to reach wider audiences.

He describes the current theatergoers as "a mixed audience, largely people who are pretty open ... not the hardliners." From the outset, he has encountered "suspicion from the right and suspicion from the left. But as we know, the extremes are not the majority.

"I just refuse to participate in a polemic," he continued. "This is not a table debate. It's not a lecture on the circuit." Instead, the play is meant to represent the "multidimensionality of the conflict. From that point, we can move forward."

In addition to performing the work, Davidman writes about the play and its subject on his blog.

"We need to talk to each other, we need to try to understand each other, even if we can't agree with each other on solutions," he has written. "It's a vital step in the process that will lead to the end of bloodshed."

While Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs have been moved by his presentation, Davidson admitted, "it's hard to get them to come, understandably. ... We are slowly making progress." He has been more successful with interfaith post-performance panel discussions with Christians and Jews.

"Christians are very moved by the piece," he said.

For 10 years, Davidman served as artistic director of San Francisco's now-defunct Traveling Jewish Theatre. He has long grappled with what Jews euphemistically call "the situation" ("matsav," in Hebrew): the ongoing conflict over the land of Israel. When Israelis celebrate the 1948 War of Independence each May, Palestinians mourn "the catastrophe" ("Al Nakba," in Arabic), when they fled their homes and villages.

Though the first run of "Wrestling Jerusalem" began just 18 months ago, the seeds for the show began to germinate during Davidman's first trip to Israel back in 1992, when he was 25. Years later at Traveling Jewish Theatre, while co-writing and directing the 2005 "Blood Relative," which features a half-Jewish half-Arab protagonist, he collaborated with Israeli, Palestinian and American artists and began exploring the conflict from multiple points of view.

Recognizing that there were bigger stories than what appeared in the newspapers, Davidman returned to Israel and began developing "Wrestling Jerusalem," which was initially funded through a 2007 commission from Theater J in Washington, D.C. Now he sees the play as his full-time job.

As he sees it, "Wrestling Jerusalem" is really "an American play for American audiences" of all faiths.

How have the performances affected him as an actor and playwright?

"It's one thing to listen" to a character, he said. "It's another to try them on. That's what I'm doing. You can't write off any one of these characters. It has taught me to have enormous respect for people whether I agree with them or not."

An Equity actor whose directing credits include "Death of a Salesman" for Traveling Jewish Theatre and "The Chosen" and "Golda's Balcony" for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Davidman remains optimistic that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be found.

"Of course, it is solvable," he said. "If we look at history, 100 years ago if we told anyone that you could take a plane from Paris to Berlin and have the same currency, nobody would believe you. There have been ongoing wars for a thousand years. But look at it now. Look at the Irish, the British and South Africa. It's not just a question of "having to believe in order to get up every day. It's totally possible. ... A lot of people are very committed to making this change for the betterment of Jews and Palestinians."

What: "Wrestling Jerusalem"

Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Sept. 20, 8 p.m.

Cost: $10-$15

Info: Go to paloaltojcc.org/events/wrestling-jerusalem or call 650-223-8649.

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