A scene from Wrestling Jerusalem

The knottiest problems are often the most important—and the ones we keep returning to. That’s what’s behind Aaron Davidman’s compelling solo piece, Wrestling Jerusalem, featured at the Hangar Theatre September 7-10. Directed by Michael John Garcés, the 85-minute play offers the perspective of 17 characters from both sides of the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Davidman wrote the play based on his own experience of trying to understand the issues involved as well as on many interviews with residents of Israel and the West Bank. 

Since the show’s March 2014 San Francisco premiere, Davidman has performed for audiences from Alaska to New York City; a feature-length film has also been recently released. The Hangar production will be followed by a facilitated post-show discussion. He spoke with the Ithaca Times by phone from his summer home in Haines, Alaska.

Ithaca Times: What was the kernel of the idea for this show? 

Aaron Davidman: It’s really about trying to understand more deeply the nuances and complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian story. As a progressive American Jew, how do I hold these competing interests and narratives? How do I explore very challenging issues?

At the time I was commissioned to create the play, in 2007, by Ari Roth—now of D.C.’s Mosaic Theater—a big question in the American Jewish community was about what can and can’t be said about Israel. Addressing this was demanding then for both of us as theatre makers—and it’s still an issue.

IT: What’s your theatrical background? 

AD: I’d trained as an actor at Carnegie Mellon and acted in regional theatre for a while. I got an MFA in creative writing/playwriting at San Francisco State. Most significantly, I was the artistic director of Traveling Jewish Theatre for 10 years. Working with this company, I was directing and writing more and creating collaboratively devised pieces. I’ve been a theatre rat my whole life.

IT: What kind of Jewish culture did you grow up with? What early exposure did you have to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  

AD: There was none—I come from a progressive home in Berkeley. We had no temple, weren’t religious. My older sister worked on a kibbutz, and my grandfather had bought Israeli bonds, but I didn’t have much consciousness. It wasn’t until I was 25, when I went to Israel for the first time that I discovered what it was all about. I didn’t really understand what my Jewish identity was, and I came away transformed. And that’s all in the play.

IT: Have you been there often since?

AD: Yes, many trips—all over Israel and the West Bank, talking with many different people and developing characters out of those interviews. Everyone wants to share their story and have their voice heard.

All this I condensed into one narrative for the play, which I imagine as a hybrid between Spaulding Gray’s memoir work and Anna Deveare Smith’s transformational work. I didn’t set out to be a solo performer or monologist—this just evolved.

IT: How do you sense audiences have responded to your play?

AD: People everywhere seemed to be moved by the performance and artistry and the freshness with which we’ve brought the topic forward. And they’ve shared how they were changed. I’ve had Jewish audiences, people who live in Israel, telling me, “You nailed it, it’s perfect”; and Palestinians thanking me, “You’ve represented us so beautifully.” But I’ve also heard people from both sides saying it’s completely skewed toward the other side.

IT: In performing this work, what’s your goal for your audiences? 

AD: I want people to encounter “the other”—whoever “the other” is for them. I offer the experience and give people the opportunity to enter into this possibility of holding multiple perspectives and feeling empathy for characters that are different from them. On another level, I’m trying to move the conversation beyond polemic and invite people to engage. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic and people often turn away from it, because they think they already have a stand.

The play’s text is very layered—there’s a lot of history woven in, a lot of personal struggle as my character tries to grapple with these issues. My hope is that people come away being entertained—there’s actually plenty of fun in it—but also having experienced something new around this topic that they think they already know everything about.

“Dare to not know so much”—and then maybe we can learn something from each other. • 

Barbara Adams is a regional arts journalist and a writing professor at Ithaca College.

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