“Woody Sez” Hits Tel Aviv!

Monday August 26
Ari here. I’ve landed in Israel; been here now for 24 hours where I’ve come to see two performances of our Helen Hayes Award winning WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOOD GUTHRIE at Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv, cast_photo_weband then a Wednesday night showing of Motti Lerner’s PANGS OF THE MESSIAH at the Beersheva Theater Company, where Boaz Gaon’s BOGED originated two years ago. I’m meeting with Motti and members of the creative team of THE ADMISSION, both here and in Haifa, accompanying Boaz to a TV studio, seeing my sister, my niece and nephew and old dear friends.

The trip to Israel’s a quick one as by Thursday I’m flying up to Northern Italy to participate with a delegation of family members, joining a local host committee in Saluzzo commemorating the escape of the Jews of Southern France into the Italian Alps in September of 1943. The commemoration will include a panel on resilience and resistance, a ceremony conferring honorary citizenship from the municipality of Validieri upon my mother and my aunt, and on September 1st, a climb up the Colle delle Finestre where we’ll meet hikers coming up from the French side at the top of the French-Italian border, marking the cooperation of citizens in both countries in helping to shelter Jewish refugees. By Labor Day, I’ll be back in DC for our Page to Stage reading of Darrah Cloud’s OUR SUBURB, directed by Judith Ivey at the Kennedy Center, where Nazis will be threatening to march in Skokie again, unearthing ripples of disturbance in the lives of the Edelman and Major families. And so the dramas of history send us off, greet us upon arrival, and will be there waiting upon return.

For now, let’s reflect on Monday night’s exhilarating performance of WOODY SEZ at Tzavta. And we begin with the obvious question: What’s brought the cast here to Israel? (And they’re here, not only in Tel Aviv, but also Jerusalem; three shows at Khan Theatre where, earlier this season, Sinai Peter directed an acclaimed production of NEW JERUSALEM: THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA, inspired by the success of our two hit productions, and later this week, two shows in Haifa.) What are they doing here? Because it’s an unlikely fit, admittedly. The Okie- folkie Appalachian musicality, pre-Weavers, with much more Texas twang than what most Israelis are used to hearing from their American folk pop, seems to strike the average Israeli in the theater here as incredibly foreign and goyishe; yet oddly, familiar too. To hear a Southern drawl in Israel is to be reminded of the religious right and the evangelical Messianism and their difficult brand of Zionism — So it takes some adjusting for some… And yet, is there an average Israeli audience? The audience I’m seeing in this theater is young and old, native Israeli and Russian and North American Anglos. There are people for whom “Way Down Yonder on The Reservation” resonates, and others for whom it’s a first time hearing.

We’ll be hearing directly from the chief devisers of the evening, David Lutken and Andy Teirstein, in interviews, statements, and some youtube specials. Andy’s been to Israel twice before and knows people here; a concert promoter named Tzvi or Howard Small knew the piece would mean something here. He was right. The tour wasn’t an easy one to fund and the details surrounding it were a swirling up to the last minute work-in-progress with plenty of drama as to whether they would make it, but in the end, with some extra pockets of help from their longest standing supporters, including Nora Guthrie at the Guthrie Center, the tour was a go, tickets went on sale, and, by God, the show is selling! They’ve been playing 80% capacity during their first 4 shows, and tonight at Tzavta is Sold Out!

Let me share some moments from my notebook — moments that strike me as immensely profound, as this intimate proven American shows plays to the people of Israel. Why is Woody here? We get our answer almost immediately.

At the opening, Woody tells us, “I’ve been all around this world and I know more about those Arab villages, those Sicilian bombed-out towns, those British cities knocked to their knees and all 48 of the United State of America; I know more about these people because of the songs I heard them sing than any words I heard them speak in their own native tongues.”

The songs people sing are a universal language bespeaking peace and understanding. And the enduring spirit of Woody Guthrie is one of identification with the struggle of people to survive, with the battle of the dispossessed to reclaim some dignity (“I ain’t gonna be treated this a way”), and of the immigrant’s sojourn across a hot dusty road to find stability and a sense of home. Woody Sez finds meaning in the Israeli experiment — in the endeavor to achieve stability, justice, and repossession… Woody Sez is here to see more than just the country. It’s here to sing with the people.

It tells the tale of a country passing through a Great Depression. And while Israel has largely watched from the sidelines as the world buckled under economic hardships during this most recent Great Recession, there is still very much an ever-widening gap here between the affluent and the disenfranchised, and a profound sense that life for many here is a beleaguered proposition.

As Woody remarks at the end of Act I: “I really didn’t know that the human race was this big.” And the audience at Tzavta laughs! Lo and behold, “Welcome To Israel,” they seem to be saying.

The resonance of the song “Pastures of Plenty” is profound, as one considers the immense differences of wealth and poverty throughout this land. Woody paints portraits of a paradise astride the barrenness of a Dustbowl desert. California becomes the most beautiful place wherein a family might starve to death. And the exploitativeness of the Company Store Creditors who bilk those who wait to work, to pick the food that the affluent will soon eat strikes a universal chord. There’s a populist outrage here that certainly some Israelis recognize and respond to.

The smiles and sing-along clapping are second nature to an Israeli society weaned on the Histadrut Labor Party, as Darcie Deaville, playing the Union Maid, leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of “You Can’t Scare Me I’m Sticking To the Union.” That same knowing audience titters earlier, with very little sentiment (unlike their American cohorts) at the end of first act when the cast bursts forth with an excerpt of the Internationale, the International Communist Anthem. There’s only so much nostalgia an Israeli audience can muster for the literalness of Socialism.

By the time it’s 1940, and Woody Guthrie—first a pacifist—must reconcile himself with the need to fight and join the war effort against Hitler; he’s got the audience square on his side when he says, “We sure feel sorry for all the sons and the mothers and dads and sweethearts and all the little kids that’s bein’ bombed in Britain and in Germany too. We feel just as sorry for one bunch as the other. A kid is a kid, and a bomb is a bomb.”

Further, the classic war tale, “The Good Reuben James” resonates with the intimacy of loss: “Tell me what were their names/what were their names? Did you have a friend on the Good Reuben James.” Knowing the casualties of war on a first name basis. This country knows that folk song in its bones.

And then Woody loses his own child, as he lost a sister long before, as he lost his mother too. The tragedies course throughout his life. “And the things that you fear, shall truly come upon you.” As Woody tragically succumbs to the same disease that took his mother, the legacy of history, and the fear of its repetition resonates deeply in the land of Israel on this August night.

The Ghost of Tom Joad haunts the final prophetic valedictory anthem, as Woody/Tom promises his mother that he will be present and bear witness to the world around him, with a magnanimous heart, knowing no boundaries of race or religion:

“Everybody might be just one big soul
Well it look that a-way to me
Everywhere that you look in the day or the night
That’s where I’m gonna be, Ma

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men and women are fightin’ for their rights
That’s where I’m gonna be, ma
That’s where I’m gonna be.”

And then it all comes down to sharing land. And extolling its beauty. In the evergreen, and its belonging to everyone. “The Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land… This Land Was Made for You and Me.” You can’t get more idealistic    — and identified — than that, now, can ya?

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