WRESTLING JERUSALEM AT PRC2, through Jan. 11

WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy Aaron Davidman.

WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy Aaron Davidman.

Aaron Davidman has written and is performing this week at PRC² a very powerful piece of theatre. You might not call Wrestling Jerusalem a “play,” but it is certainly a fine piece of performance art. Although Davidman holds the stage alone, director Michael John Garcés and a team of musicians, a choreographer and multiple designers get big credit for the sensual richness of the simple set-up. The show runs only through Jan. 11 in the small Kenan Theatre at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. Humans are probably never going to quit fighting, dominating and killing their neighbors and kinfolks (the message of Cain and Abel?), but a work like Wrestling Jerusalem allows for a few hours of hope that we might at least understand each other a little bit, sometimes.

No matter what your thoughts and feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are likely to find them–and their equal and opposite counter-positions–spoken by one of the 17 characters Davidman portrays. Davidman is a Jew, and had been to Israel before, but in 2006 he was commissioned by Ari Roth, then the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Theatre J, to write a piece exploring different aspects of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggles. This was immediately following the premiere of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about the death of a young American apparently trying to act as a human shield for a Palestinian house. She was crushed to death by an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer in 2003, and the play made from her writings not only aroused consciousness of the situation in Gaza, it inflamed passions all around. Many Jewish individuals and organizations regarded the play as wrongfully portraying Israel, and the initial American production was cancelled. (The show ran briefly at Durham’s Manbites Dog in May, 2006, with Dana Marks directed by Jay O’Berski.) Roth, who was present along with Davidman at the PRC² post-show discussion on Jan. 8, wanted more balance and nuance introduced into views of a situation that is tearing apart not only Israelis and Palestinians, but the American Jewish community, and, in my opinion, pretty much all the rest of the conscious world. (Roth was fired in December from Theatre J; very interesting Howlround interview here. He is now artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company of DC. )

Wrestling Jerusalem spins like a top, but the 90-minute performance is balanced. It has a beautiful formal structure, in which Davidman braids together the voices of Palestinians and Jews, along with his own observations of fact and his emotional responses to places and situations as he traveled in Israel and the Palestinian areas researching the work. He begins his three-strand braid with a creation story image, of balls of light swelling and shattering, sending their shards everywhere. It is the work of humans, he says, to collect the shards and re-make wholeness. So off he goes on his journey, looking for shards of light; often he finds darkness. Each story snugs tightly to the next, taking some of its shape from the other. And the braid circles around, the end joining the beginning in an expression not only of the circularity of the problem, but in an image of wholeness.

I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from these remarkably realized characters (“real, hybrid and made-up,” said Davidman), but I did gain an increase in empathy for all sides. That strikes me as a huge thing for a piece of theatre to accomplish.

Aaron Davidman in his WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Aaron Davidman in WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo: the artist.

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Next Year in the Theater

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Whew. 2014 was another amazing year in Triangle theatre, but there’s little time off for the avid audience. 2015’s season starts right up on Jan. 2 with South Stream Productions presentation of Pinter’s The Caretaker at Common Ground. If Pinter’s not tough enough for you, try Wrestling Jerusalem, at PlayMakers PRC2 Jan. 7-11.

A one-man show, written and performed by Aaron Davidman, the work follows Davidman’s travels in Israel and Palestine as he attempts to unravel this knot of troubles, “to try,” in his words,”to understand the nuance and complexity that lives in the hearts of the human beings at the center of the conflict. Part personal memoir, part transformational theatre, in addition to myself, I play 17 different characters whom I meet along the way, each with his own story and perspective to share.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the PRC2 series is not just about watching a show–it’s about having a discussion afterwards, since civil discussion of intractable matters is one of the key roles of theater in society. I am deeply grateful to live in a place with real theatre that does just that, and deeply admiring of theatre leaders who bring tough work and defend it against all the forces of dilution and silence. You may have read of the recent firing of the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Theater J, Ari Roth, by the board of the Jewish Community Center, of which the theater is a part. In an unheard-of show of support, 60 or so artistic directors from theaters around the country sent an open letter of protest. I am proud to say that our own Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of PlayMakers–who keeps bringing us work like Rodney King and Wrestling Jerusalem–was one of the signatories. You can read an interview with Roth on Howlround here.

Hard on the heels of that show will come the eagerly awaited new work by Howard L. Craft, Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. Directed by Joseph Megel and performed by the talented Alphonse Nicholson, the presentation by the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance will play in UNC’s Swain Hall Jan. 8-24.

Also opening Jan. 8, at Manbites Dog Theater, VECTOR‘s Habitus, an installation/performance by dancer/choreographer Leah Wilks and video/virtuality wizard Jon Haas. All this and more before the month’s half over. Rest now, ye merry ladies and gents–no rest in the new year.

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