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Ties that grind Drama makes Israeli-Palestinian clash personal



Ties that grind
When a mixed marriage spans bitterly opposed cultures, pressures on the offspring can erode the very foundations of identity. This spring a playabout heritage wars in Israel helped Skidmore students feel the pinch.

by Barbara Melville

On a Jerusalem street, shouting Palestinian demonstrators taunt a young man for “smelling like a Jew.” One head-butts him, breaking his nose. They scatter as Israeli soldiers rush in. Eyeing the young man suspiciously, a soldier suddenly bawls, “Bomb!”

Now all the soldiers are shouting at him, M16s leveled. They throw him to his knees, handcuff him, and jerk his shirt up. There’s no bomb strapped to his waist, but a soldier bashes him with the butt of his weapon anyway, and another kicks him in the ribs.

This particular incident—an ugly example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ small—was not the real thing, just a scene rehearsal for Skidmore’s recent mainstage production of Blood Relative. The play presents the Middle East problem in an unusually personal way, retelling the true story of Ibrahim Miari. Born to an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father, Ibi answers to both his Arabic name and the Hebraic Avraham—and to the warring halves of his own mixed heritage. His efforts to figure out who and what he is illuminate the intimate daily aspects of the conflict that never make the nightly news. The play’s unbiased, individual perspective offered an intriguing complement to Skidmore’s Greenberg Middle East Scholars-in-Residence Program, which co-sponsored the project with the theater department.

Again the actors rehearse the scene. Ibi (Ethan Weiss ’09) crashes to the floor, carefully keeping his back to viewers for yet another stunt rib-kick. When it comes, he yelps so convincingly that the soldier-actor shifts her M16 and murmurs apologetically, “I only kicked the floor.” They work the scene over and over—crash, bash, kick—until the actors are puffing but the action looks real. “Very good,” says director Lary Opitz, professor of theater. “You OK?” he asks Weiss. “How’re your knees?” They’re fine thanks to thick kneepads he wears under his pants. Stage manager Rachel Taylor ’09 makes a note: Sew pads into costume.

The run-through ends and the irrepressible Weiss rolls over on his back, playfully grabbing his toes. But in the world of the play, the episode of brutality from both sides of his heritage drives Ibi over the edge; he bunkers down in his apartment, nursing depression and despair. He hears voices, sees people both real and imagined: his alcoholic Israeli war-veteran uncle David (played by Opitz) visits, with all his earthly belongings in two black garbage bags; the quarreling ghosts of his Israeli grandfather Zvi and Arab grandmother Najima haunt him; the quirky young cleaning lady, Tamara, stubbornly stands by him, neatening his chaotic apartment even after he fires her. When Ibi does come tentatively to grips with his own identity, it’s neither Arab nor Jew but his own mixed self.

You’d think such tinderbox issues would spark passionate debate in the seminar course designed to probe the core themes of each semester’s mainstage show. But the cast and crew were studiously polite—and somewhat uneducated: no one aced the first quiz on Israel-Palestine history. Surprising? Maybe not. After all, the Middle East has been in chronic turmoil since long before the students were born; to them, it’s an old story and a hopeless one. “There’s always something bad happening in the Middle East,” says Alistair Spatz ’09, who plays Ibi’s grandfather. “I’ve been turned off because both sides have perpetrated terrible wrongs,” confesses Julie Congress ’08, who plays Yael, an almost comically pro-Palestine Israeli. To fill in the blanks, Opitz augmented the seminar’s text with suggested readings, Internet resources, maps, and guest lectures by half a dozen Skidmore faculty members.

“It was a very good class,” says Spatz. “There was a professor of Islam and a rabbi, a philosopher and a government expert. In one class, we were split into opposing teams and told, ‘You must argue strongly for or against.’” But the seminar material went beyond the usual polarized talking points, says Congress. “It was like taking blinders off and realizing that there are not just two sides. Everyone’s got a different angle.” For instance, she adds, “it never occurred to me that someone like Yael could exist.”

Such open-minded understanding is also the goal of the Greenberg Scholars-in-Residence, who aim to snap audiences out of their apolitical stupors regarding the Middle East. Jim Chansky, coordinator of the Greenberg program, likes to employ visual arts, films, music, and poetry. When he expressed interest in producing a Mideast-focused play that was “both engaging and politically substantive,” Opitz came up with the promising new work that had debuted at San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theater in 2005. Aaron Davidman, one of the play’s co-creators and its first director, was willing to workshop it further at Skidmore. Greenberg funding made possible Davidman’s weeklong campus residency and shorter visits from him and the real Ibi Miari.

That residency was clearly exhilarating for the students. The first night, Spatz says, “we sat in a big circle on stage and read through the play. Aaron would ask us, ‘Do you think this line works?’ Every night after that he came in with new words he had written for us.” Weiss adds, raising his hand knee-high, “In my room, I had a stack of Blood Relative rewrites this high.”

For Davidman, the residency was “a gift,” a chance to add new voices to a play his troupe had conceived as a dialogue for many voices. In return, Davidman’s gift to the young actors was to let them “be creative.” He heard their ideas, created new roles to fill the large-cast needs of a college production, and wrote three new scenes. The upshot? A living example of what Weiss lauds as “academic theater”—an intellectually informed stage project that also allows actors to test themselves as co-creators. Working with a playwright to shape a play and with a director to form a scene—these are “the kind of head-banging experiences,” says Weiss, “that have the potential to knock loose something extraordinary.”

Something extraordinary is created by Alistair Spatz and Natasha Amendolara ’08 (Ibi’s grandmother, Najima), who pull off one of the play’s most powerful scenes. Early in the action, Ibi is visited by the spirit of his Jewish grandfather Zvi tenderly recalling golden days on his beloved kibbutz. Najima appears too, telling of her childhood in Jaffa, where her cultured Palestinian family hosted evenings of poetry and politics. But they each have a merciless ideological drive that they direct toward their grandson. “Never forget, Ibi, what was taken from you,” Najima says fiercely; Zvi wheedles, “We did it all for you. You are obligated, Avi.” In a deliciously bizarre bit of staging, a cheerful little tune starts up and the debate morphs into a waltz. “What if I came to your house, uninvited, and told you I am moving in?” demands Najima, whose family had been driven out of their Jaffa home. “We had a right to settle this land as much as anyone!” Zvi flares back. Now the waltz starts to look more like a wrestling match, with the opponents locked together, pushing and raging at each other, as the tinny music plays on. “You guys look like you’re really fighting,” says a fellow actor. “It needs more work,” says Opitz judiciously, “but it’s taking shape.“ The more it does, the more it becomes clear that, as Amendolara ruefully points out later, “that scene could have gone on for hours, with no resolution, no one agreeing or yielding a point.”

Some of the students see hope in younger-generation characters like the housekeeper Tamara, who never asks Ibi to choose ethnic sides. But Yori Ben-Haim ’08, whose own family regularly visits Israel, flatly says that people “will not give up until they get what they fully want, which entails others losing what they want.” Which means, says Opitz, “the real tragedy will always be at the human level.”

It’s not an easy play, as Chansky admits with some pride. But Blood Relative got good reviews. The Glens Falls Post-Star called it “excellent theater…a genuine attention-holder that offers no answers but instead focuses on helping an audience feel the emotions that these problems arouse.” By the final curtain call, not only its audiences but the play’s cast and crew knew—and felt—a lot more about the volatile human nexus of Israeli history and politics. “Together the play and the seminar were an amazing learning experience,” says Spatz. “I always used to ignore all those Middle East stories on my Yahoo home page. Now I click them open and read them. No way am I going to look at this situation in the same way ever again.”