When is a theater company more than a theater company? When does a play become something more than a play?
The answer to the first question is Theater J. Under Artistic Director Ari Roth and working out of the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street, Theater J has become something much more than a theater company, presenting plays that are both universal and specific to the Jewish community.
Roth—in cooperation with many other artists and patrons—has taken this specific mission and enlarged it by using the theater to reach out and become involved in the great Middle Eastern issues of conflict, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which resonates as a critical and unresolved problem.
Roth has done this in a number of ways, including the creation of the Peace Café with Iraqi-born restaurateur and arts patron Andy Shalala. The Peace Café is a gathering occasion for Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and others to meet and discuss ongoing Middle Eastern issues peacefully.
The answer to the second question is a play called “Return to Haifa,” adapted by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon from the novella by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. The show is now being performed by the renowned visiting Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater and Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts at the JCC.
More generally, “Return to Haifa” is the the weightiest matter and main attraction in Theater J’s Fourth Annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which includes a series of nine one-night events, readings and performances from and about the Middle East (running through February 17). “Return to Haifa,” a remarkable, brave, emotionally stirring play, runs through January 30.
All of these combined efforts on the part of Roth and his theatrical conspirators are to take part in peaceful happenings that try to famliarize the “others” by bringing them together through art, culture and lively discussion.
In “Haifa” and in the festival there is an arena where this sort of thing happens—and not necessarily painlessly. The modern conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has its roots in ancient history, in the debate about the ownership of land, culture and history.
All of those issues come into play in “Return to Haifa.” It is based on a work by a Palestinian writer named Ghassan Kanafani, who once wrote a moving fictional story about a Holocaust survivor in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. The war ended in a remarkable Israeli military victory bearing strategic but poisoned fruit: the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The result turned Kanafani into something of a militant and spokesperson for the PLO. He was killed with his young niece in 1972, allegedly by the Mossad.
Those bits of history, which you can find in the program for “Haifa” alone, ought to give audiences an idea of just how startling the presence of this play is at a Jewish Community Center.
Performed by a splendid Israeli theater company, there is dialogue spoken in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. It touches nerves like a live wire. It is discomforting, painful and difficult. It has the potential for healing and opening hearts, but the process is pain-inducing, depending on where you sit.
The play is acted at an emotional level that manages to overcome the difficulty of following the languages and translations. The acting is direct, subtle and all-consuming, creating an atmosphere that resembles emotively the power and function of music in an opera.
“Haifa” is about memory, and the ownership of memories and place. It concerns a Palestinian couple named Sa’id and Saffiyeh, who are coming to Haifa from Ramallah to revisit the home they abandoned in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which displaced thousands of Palestinians. They also left behind an infant they had named Khaldun. Miriam, who was granted the house by the Jewish authorities with her husband Ephraim, is now in residence, along with a son named Dov, who is in the Israeli army.
Dov is the son left behind by the Palestinian couple, raised as a Jew. The father has passed away, but Miriam is here to confront Sa’id and Saffiyeh.
This might sound like classic melodrama, and ways it is: lost birth rights, lost children, lost homes, confrontations with the past. Nevertheless, it comes with the power of an earthquake to raise timeless issues still causing bloodshed today. A similar thing occurred in Germany when “Holocaust,” an American-made mini-series starring Meryl Streep, was broadcast. The series was melodramatic, and therefore had the power not only to resurrect the ghosts of the past, but to make Germans confront the human issues, the cost, and the suffering by way of in an individual story, not just impossible statistics.
“Haifa” is a lot less simple than pure melodrama because it deals with the morality of justice and the inconsistent nature of memory. At the time of the 1948 war, for instance, with space scarce, and only incoming Jews from Europe with a child could own a house. The baby left behind gave Miriam ownership of the house. Miriam had also lost a child in the Holocaust.
And there is the eternal conflict, with so many unresolved grievances on both sides that it beggars description. Yet “Haifa” attempts to do just that; it describes what is lost, what seems irreconcilable, what is hopeful and what is not. When Dov, going to sleep, insists there will be no more wars, he is wrong and naïve, but he embraces the right impulse.
Every conflict—from the original 1948 War, to through the Suez War, the 1967 War, the Yom Kippur War, the PLO Wars, the Lebanese Wars, the Intifadah—provides another cache of grief and grievances for future generations.
“Haifa” looks inside that cache and finds humanity, and that’s thanks to the actors. It’s not always easy to follow the back and forth; concentrate on the subtitles and you lose some of the emotional force of the acting, and vice versa. You can lose strings and strands of what is at stake by missing the meaning.
But the cast, notably Rozina Kambos and Raida Adon (as Miriam and Saffiyeh, respectively) override such consideration. They sweep you away by letting you feel the emotions as well as their details. That is a remarkable achievement of theater.
Readings for the “Voices from a Changing Middle East: Portraits of Home” include:
“The Promise”, by Ben Brown, January 31
“To Pay the Price”, by Peter-Adrian Cohen, February 5
“I’m Speaking to You Chinese” by Savyon Liebrecht, February 7
“Wresting Jerusalem:” by Aaron Davidman, February 12
“Hour of Feeling” and “Urge for Going”, by Mona Mansour, February 14
“The Admission” by Motti Lerner, February 27
The 10th Anniversary of the Peace Café will be celebrated with a one-time production and reprise of “Via Dolorosa” by David Hare, which launched the discussion program ten years ago.