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Walking into the theater Wednesday night for PlayMakers Repertory Company’s presentation of Wrestling Jerusalem, it was hard for my mind to think of anything beyond the carnage in Paris just hours before: twelve people dead after an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper. Most killed were the artists themselves, irreverent cartoonists and writers who spat in the eye of religious dogma and authoritarianism and died because of it. In the talkback following the performance, American performer and writer Aaron Davidman revealed that he was dedicating that night’s performance to the victims of the tragedy. It’s a poignant dedication given Davidman’s own often-irreverent take on dogma and authority.
“It’s complicated!” Davidman shouts after entering the stage to begin the play. His first line speaks volumes. He follows it with a monologue presenting a deluge of historical moments that could possibly mark the starting point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s too many to keep up with, but that’s the point. It’s conflict that we can all agree is…complicated, with origins in thousands of years of history going back to the Romans. And like so many of us, Davidman is a man at war. He loves Israel and its people. He kisses the tarmac when he touches down in his distant homeland, but he’s torn by the never-ending conflicts and growing death toll. When he visits the wall dividing the West Bank, his mind floods with images from the Holocaust. At what point does nationalism and pride in your heritage make you complicit in apartheid? As Davidman would remind us, it’s complicated.
The solo performance is constructed from a series of tense, funny, thoughtful, and at times moving conversations Davidman recorded with native Israelis and Palestinians during a trip to Jerusalem. It’s a play seven years in the making. Davidman is able to find a diverse group from both sides of the Wall and delivers their words with equal candor. The topics range from the nature of God to the social political conditions of Palestine. In one conversation Davidman is reminded of the origin of the name Israel. It was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God. Wrestling thus becomes a key theme. And through a series of arresting conversations and narrations, the audience is forced to wrestle with one of the most important conflicts of our time. A conflict that has a tendency to spill over in places like New York and Paris. A conflict that sometimes gets cartoonists killed for speaking their mind.
Davidman’s performance was ecstatic, and he slipped between characters with hardly a moment of rest for the audience. It can be difficult to keep up. The play moves from moment to moment with the help of Bruno Lochouran’s sound design, a mix of traditional and modern Israeli and Palestinian music. Moments of dialogue break way to dance, choreographed by Stacey Printz, that highlight Davidman’s internal struggle. These combined elements give the play the feeling of a fever dream. Nephelie Andonyadis’s backdrop resembles a Rothko painting. It’s a mix of oranges and yellows. The colors of earth, sand, and sun. Colors of life. It brings to mind images of the cradle of civilization. But the browns and greys help to give a sense of rust, colors of death and decay. The design too is at war.
I read in the news this morning that some Parisians were responding to the Charlie Hebdo shooting by attacking mosques. In Israel, terrorist attacks have often been met with state authorized retaliation, bombings with high civilian casualties. It’s complicated. Early in the play, a character tells Aaron, “We are all the same under God.” His reply: “Then why do we keep killing each other?” It’s a question we’re all wrestling with.
Wrestling Jerusalem continues through Sunday, January 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.