Our Latest Middle East Festival Event: Aaron Davidman’s WRESTLING JERUSALEM

…from Aaron Davidman’s beautiful tour de force performance piece—its latest iteration, some three and a half years after its debut at Theater J. Read about the first version here. And now an excerpt from the current prologue, story #3 of the opening:

Projection: “City Of Tolerance”

(Large crowd. Protest banners. Sounds of protest rally.)

I’m at the steps of Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley Campus, front-line of the Free Speech Movement. Where Mario Savio once stood before thousands and proclaimed:

MARIO: There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.

UC Berkeley Campus. I’m at the steps of Sproul Hall. Where Joan Baez once sang songs of freedom. Where teach-ins and protests against the Vietnam War inspired a generation to action.

(sings) We shall overcome. We shall overcome…

I’m at the steps of Sproul Hall. Where, in 1985, we cut classes from Berkeley High School to stand with the community in protest of the racist Apartheid government of South Africa.

PROTESTER: What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!

UC Berkeley. I’m at the steps of Sproul Hall. A few days after two planes crashed into the Twin Towers and cracked America. Disbelief. Ashes and grief blanket New York City. America mourns. Bad luck for citizens named Muhammed. Ibrahim. Ahmed. Saheed. America wants revenge. Arab-Americans are fearful. I’m at the steps of Sproul Hall at an anti-racism rally. Solidarity march. Stand together with Arab brothers and sisters. Say NO to racism. Seek justice, not revenge. Berkeley, city of tolerance. City of diversity. The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated. Flags. Banners. Arab Student Union up front. Bull horn blazing. We Are Not Terrorists. We Are Arab-Americans. Thousands moving across the plaza. Young women. Young men. We Are Not Terrorists. We Are American Citizens. We will not allow the tragedy of these attacks to justify hatred of Arabs. The heat of bodies press together. Sun bright over head. You cannot lock us up because of the color of our skin. Blue sky above, reaching out forever. You cannot lock us up because of our religious beliefs. Mouth dry. Elbow to elbow. Crowd thickens. We Will Not Succumb To The Global Hegemony Of The United States Government and its tool, Israel. Roar of voices. Roar. Behind me, first, it comes. Free Free Palestine. Flags. Fists. Free Free Palestine. Banners. Bodies press. Free Free Palestine. A surge of words. A crackle of fire. It spreads. End The Occupation. Fists squeeze tight. End The Occupation. Fists fill the air. Death To Israel. What? What? Death To Israel. A blur of faces. A fog of sound. Death To The Jews! Death To The Jews! Death To The Jews!

(black out)

So. Do you see? Three stories.
As my rabbi would say, “It’s a problem.”

* * *
And these responses from attendees tonight.
First from Chanel Adikuono

Wrestling Jerusalem was the first reading I have ever attended. Aaron Davidman’s performance had similar elements to Ana DeaVere Smith’s one man performance of playing multiple characters. Davidman performed with passion, and did a great job in making distinctions between the different personalities that was portrayed within Writing to Jerusalem through the change in his facial expressions, changes in accents and fluctuations in tone.

Unlike a play that consists of multiple actors and actresses with many props and technical changes, a reading gave the audiences the opportunity to paint the images in their own mind. The music provided an important detail to the flow of the play as it was used as a cue to change between the scenes or what they call it the three stories.

Since there was emphasis on three stories, I was expecting, simply three stories. As it turns out it was three stories plus several more. I will talk more of the three stories which stayed more freshly in my mind.

The first story of Upstate New York focused on this idea of the social conscience and an individual’s ability to empathize with strangers and more significantly to care for strangers is what it means to be Jewish. This idea of caring for strangers was repeated later on in “The Dead Sea” and the 3 commandments was mentioned. I thought it was powerful that we were reminded that “we shall love the stranger”. In my own interpretation I thought this was a reflection of this idea of welcoming someone back, whether they be strangers or someone near to our own hearts. It ties into the concept of the Right to Return. There should be a social understanding that who or what we might consider to be strangers, might actually in fact be one of our own.

The second story of a young man who was kicked out of the program, because he was “intense” for meditating on the roof top symbolizes this idea of escaping from the institution. It shows that he learned best by joining in the community rather than following a structured system. In the end, he learned just as much if not more by being immersed in the environment.

The third story of Berkeley as the “City of Tolerance” was a personal favorite, not at all because I am a UC Berkeley student myself. In this one, it also brought in this theme of strangers unified to fight for a specific cause. It walked us through the activism and protests of the biggest events and politically controversial moments in our history on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Davidman, a single man, brought in the power of the masses onto a small stage. The way he projected his voice to show the power that took place on Sproul Plaza during these protests gave me chills. This sent a message to the audience that there are a community of people who will break the social norms and misinformation that are being portrayed in the media of particular assumptions, like one of Arabs after the tragedy of 9/11. It showed that there are groups of people such as those in Berkeley that will challenge, fight for the truth and seek justice.

Overall, it was impressive to see a reading where one man represented multiple characters and evoked plethora of emotions. I cannot cover half of the experience merely on this blog entry.

* * *

And from Michael Maiorano

Tonight’s solo performance of Wrestling Jerusalem was very entertaining from an artistic perspective. Though it couldn’t touch Anna Deveare Smith (not that it aimed to), in terms of performance, Davidman confronted a similar challenge of conveying multiple characters through just one body. I found the reading tremendously successfully, in that confronted a similar challenge of conveying multiple characters through just one body.

When I skimmed the script before the play, what first caught my eye was a familiar quote; “don’t start no shit it wont be no shit”, by YoungBloodz. I was inclined to view the author’s placement of that line as cantankerous, a clever way of espousing a pro-israeli point of view. As the rest of the performance would prove, perhaps the opposite was true?

Deeper into the play… At about the fifth scene, I conceded that I wasn’t just imagining things; “Bushra: There is a man I always see at the belt Jala check-point. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses”, continuing, “someone should make a movie about this man”(pg. 21). When did Davidman start working on this? The Rosa Park’s stories premiered in 2002. Huh?

To me, the reading’s central meaning came full circle when one the character’s chose to discuss reflexivity, a concept I sort of understood, but by a different name, and another sort of related concept…Most common in psychology, but widely studied and applied in the social sciences, the fundamental involves an often consequential result of our human cognition, and in this case related to our need to reduce, categorize, label… The numerous characters and conversations in the play repeatedly illustrated a single point made explicit by one conversation; “there is power in names”. I will go ahead and claim that this power tends to have a destructive valence when it is translated into action.

Though he wrote and acted from a Jewish point of view, his work was not, in my view, pro-Israeli. Rather, in terms of content, the recognition of the human obstacles to progress were reflective of a very progressive viewpoint, one that voiced a willingness to take the difficult first step of undressing his own tendencies and perceptions.


7 thoughts on “Our Latest Middle East Festival Event: Aaron Davidman’s WRESTLING JERUSALEM

  1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has passionate advocates on both sides, so it is not only refreshing, but necessary, for people to read personal accounts that make up a variety of opinions and beliefs and make the conflict more personal and humanistic. Aaron Davidman’s piece reminded me of the human element of this conflict that I believe is too often forgotten amongst the cries of religion, land, and security.

    The story that stood out most to me was Davidman’s experience waiting for Musa on the streets of Hebron while in the midst of what he believed was an anti-Semitic rally. I think it really tackles the element of fear that overwhelms this conflict. Fear of the unknown; fear of change; Fear of what you don’t understand. Davidman was sure that what he was listening to was a call for the destruction of Israel and the elimination of Jews, when in reality it was nothing more than an auction. Most people tend to think worst case scenario when put in situations that they are unfamiliar with, and the lack of a holistic perspective and the preconceived notions that people have regarding the Middle Eastern conflict leads them to respond to reports, events, or situations with a defensive mindset that is directed by fear. Davidman’s writing attacks that mentality by providing several different personalized accounts that chronicle the meaning and affects of the conflict on real peoples’ lives.

    By broadening the narrative and providing more information, the end result will hopefully be that the actions and discussions of Israelis, Palestinians, and other relevant parties, will not be motivated by fear, but by what is needed to reach a deal that is fair for both sides.

  2. Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem reading was a creative perspective on the ongoing dialogue of differences and similarities between Palestine and Israel, and those individuals experiencing this dialogue firsthand. Davidman portrays characters representing many different perspectives and outlooks. I liked how he did not present this polemic topic one-sided; he skillfully transitioned from an Israeli man to a Palestinian man, accurately portraying each man’s unique perspective and experiences with the “other side”. The phrase “other side” is problematic in my opinion because it suggests and stark and natural difference and divide between people of both nations; however as Davidman and others would assert this divide is not strictly black and white. There are as many perspectives on the ongoing conflict as there are people in both nations

    Before attending the show I did not really know what to expect, I wondered if it was going to be as dynamic of a performance as Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy. The show was not like Smith’s but that did not make it any less of a quality performance. Davidman presented his characters with an understated subtlety. I admired the way in which he played two individuals exchanging dialogue (sometimes with different accents) and transitioned from one to the other without disrupting the scene. I liked how Davidman managed to incorporate humor into discussing this controversial and emotional topic. Among emotional stories about border security and suicide bombings he managed to include humor. I especially like how he set up and delivered the story about the Rabbi, who has prayed at sunrise for forty years at the Western Wall, who said his praying has made him feel like he’s talking to a !@%$#%@ Wall!

  3. Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem is a new type of play from what has been performed so far this year at Theater J. There are multiple stories from various angles told through one performer. I have to admit I enjoy this style of performance. I think it’s because I am more focused on the “meat” of the actual stories rather than being distracted by costumes, sets, and multiple actors (or readers).

    There was one specific theme I wanted to discuss in my blog post. I noticed that there seems to be a divide amongst not only Israelis/Palestinians but a divide amongst the people on both sides of the spectrum (example: Israelis vs. Israelis). Going to various Theater J performances I have picked up on this in a number of readings/shows. In Wrestling Jerusalem, I noticed where there was a divide in ideology and belief among different members of the Jewish community.

    The story with Jacob in Tel Aviv shows some Jews believe it is wrong for Israelis to criticize the country publicly. He compared Israel to the Arab countries and strongly believed Israel is not treated the same way as other countries, at least when it comes to media bashing, coverage, etc. He does not want Israel to seem weak by having the people questioning the government so much in the public eye. Conversely, the story of Jessie shows that some people think it is right to criticize corruption and abuse in government and report truth no matter what the issue or who it is about. Furthermore, the story with Avram shows there is an ideological gap amongst some Jews. Avram pokes fun at the “liberal Jews” and says they should try living in Israel.

    I think Aaron Davidman brought these stories to life for me. However, being distant from this topic and maybe ignorant being an American Christian, I was wondering are there noticeable differences among the Jewish community in regards to the Palestinian conflict? If so, how far apart are the sides? I think this work shows that the conflict maybe cannot simply be broken down to Jews against Arabs or Israelis against Palestinians but maybe just people vs. people. Both sides have different views to varying extents and I think each generation perhaps is open to more progressive actions and responses involving the conflict and solutions.

  4. After recently seeing Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman show “Let Me Down Easy” I was hesitant to attend Aaron Davidman’s “Wrestling Jerusalem” because I thought it would pale in comparison. However, I was happily surprised that “Wrestling Jerusalem” was entertaining in a different way than “Let Me Down Easy”. While both of these productions were one person shows, “Wrestling Jerusalem” was more narrative based as it covered conflict in an entire region versus extremely specific characters that were based in interviews. I thought that Davidman did an excellent job and, like Sara, thought that his characters and transitions were delicate and uniquely contained in comparison to Anna Deavere Smith’s whose transitions were forcefully commanding. I also appreciated that Davidman also described scenery well so that I was able to imagine him in the Middle East in contrast to on a bare dark stage.

    Overall, the aspect that I most enjoyed about his performance was that there was a lot of humor (at least in comparison to other Jewish works we have seen) which made the piece much more attainable to someone like myself who is in fact not Jewish and not very well versed in the details of the region. Many times in dramatic works whether they be Jewish, Shakespearean, or some type of modern play the problems and issues become so large that they consume the characters. Since Davidson included current events, dialogues between people of different nationalities, and a few jests the performance kept my attention instead of making the audience stressed by the gravity of the problems it presented.

  5. My respect for monologists runs deep. It’s never easy to embody an entire story alone and from Anna Deveare Smith to Aaron Davidman, I’ve had the opportunity to view two skilled solo performers in less than a month. While Smith made a strong political statement through stringing the words of unrelated people together, Davidman seemed to create his characters based on their political pliability. While these approaches differ, one is not better than the other.

    Davidman proved himself to be a deft actor, capable of the fast transitions he had written for himself, and his style itself was reminiscent of the culture: it was rapid, it was concise, and it was dense with opinions. These were few of the many recurring traits of his characters. And this, I found, proved to be his assets – the commonalities between his characters, not their differences. For while he nailed the nuances of inhabiting very different people, it was when their disparate perspectives aligned that Wrestling Jerusalem really came alive.

    Like the attention to detail spent on his characters, Davidman also uncovered nuances about the issues swirling around the Israeli-Palestine behemoth of an issue. As David noted, Avram is an interesting character whose story seems to reference how there are sharp divisions in a community that is often portrayed as unquestionably unified. Davidman, as single entity embodying both perspectives, serves as a symbol of the issue’s complexity. He represents the notion that a multitude of reactions about this issue are not only appropriate but also present in certain, less vocals sects of the population. Given the subject matter, Davidman did a fantastic job of finding the variety, complexity, and most surprisingly, the humor in an issue that holds such weight in Jewish communities around the world.

  6. Wrestling Jerusalem was one of the more emotionally heavy scripts for me to read. I felt that it truly encompassed various points of view regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More importantly, the reading presented experiences and opinions that are many times hidden from the public. Coming from a country that recognizes and supports Israel, I found it shocking to hear accounts of Jews living in the Middle East who publicly condemn Israeli occupied territories. However, after attending several insightful Theater J readings I’ve come to find that my shock is naïve. Aaron Davidman beautifully and tragically sums up the views victims of the conflict have when he writes, “B’Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organization, calls it the Separation Barrier. The Israelis call it the Security Fence. The Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall.”

    Davidman goes on to give several accounts of how the conflict has affected individuals’ views of the occupied territories. Two that particularly struck me were Jacob and Jessie who had very contrasting accounts. Jacob acknowledges that Israel may have done things he doesn’t agree with, but he refuses to publicly denounce the government for fear of making the state look weak. Contrastingly, Jessie fervently believes that self-criticism shows the world that Israel is truly a democracy. Although both people may feel that their government has committed inhumane acts, they go about expressing their opinions very differently. I found it interesting that Davidman portrayed several points of view among Jews living in Israel. I found it to be incredibly informative and eye-opening by allowing me to understand that perhaps the Jewish and Palestinian people have more in common than the media allows to be depicted in the U.S.

    Overall, Aaron Davidman beautifully conveys the moral dilemmas people face during the conflict. He also artistically incorporated his personal memories, such as attending camp as a child, to give the audience a true sense of his emotional and spiritual connection to the people he interviewed. The script gives insights into the complexities of the conflict where both sides are victims, yet share responsibility in their grievances.

  7. Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem brilliantly portrayed diverse viewpoints and accounts of the conflict in the Middle East. Ranging between the Israelis and Palestinians. The style of the monologue gives the characters persona’s who he takes on throughout the piece more color as we are not blinded by our direct perceptions, rather our imagination is given full reign to develop several aspects of the characters in a creative manner.

    However, in contrast to Anna Deavere Smith’s “Lay Me Down Easy,” Wrestling Jerusalem stuck stronger to the theme of understanding the conflict through narratives. While we were given free reign of our imaginations, the narratives of the various voices were on point. Whereas with Anna Deavere Smith’s performance, I felt that the theme was not as evident. Often, the characters she portrayed were very off point. However, this is simply my singular opinion.

    Because the piece flowed through the various voices presented in the piece, I felt that, as an outsider, I was given the opportunity to learn a lot about the conflict. I found myself feeling connected to nearly every character presented. I have a gained respect for the monologue because it allows us to delve into an unknown topic from a humanistic standpoint, as opposed to a third party view that is far removed from the issue and makes it difficult to understand.

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