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.

Don’t Shoot: Roger Guenveur Smith’s Timely RODNEY KING at PRC2


Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man show RODNEY KING, at PRC2 through Sept. 7. Photo: Patti McGuire.

Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man show RODNEY KING, at PRC2 through Sept. 7.                    Photo: Patti McGuire.

PlayMakers Repertory Company‘s second stage series, PRC2, generally presents works that are smaller and fiercer than the Mainstage series can be. Often one-person shows, they tend to address issues that range from difficult to baffling, and the presentations are structured to include post-show discussions–these are sometimes as provocative as the shows themselves. The season-opener this year began Sept. 2 and runs through Sept. 7. If you do not already have tickets for Rodney King, get them now, because Roger Guenveur Smith has made a remarkable artwork out of some particularly harrowing history.

If you had attained the age of reason by March 1991, you will remember, with shame, something about Rodney King being beaten within a millimeter of his life on the side of the road outside Los Angeles by a uniformed policeman, while three other policemen watched–as did a man on a nearby balcony, through the lens of his video camera. That video went around the world in hours, and its existence made a mockery of the “justice” meted out to the officers in their 1992 trial in Simi Valley, CA. When those men were found not guilty, rioting began in Los Angeles. Murder, grievous injury, mayhem, arson, looting, RAGE ran through the streets like mercury from a blown out thermometer. It was not, it turned out, the revolution, but it was televised. The government sent in the military, but it was more likely King’s press conference plea: “Can we all get along?” that kept all of LA from burning to the ground.  If, like 2014’s first-year class of college students, you had not yet been born, you can read a reasonably balanced short version of King’s story on Wikipedia.

Or, you could just get over to PlayMakers and take in Smith’s extraordinary rhetorical feat. As the recent abomination in Ferguson, MO, attests, the content is highly relevant. As important, from an aesthetic point of view, is that King is an excellent character for dramatic inspection. Did some bad things and many stupid things, but wasn’t evil. Did some good things, but wasn’t a great leader, except for one pitiful moment. Made a big mistake that could never be fixed: a tragic, polarizing figure.

Smith’s examination can be hard to take. Rodney King opens with Smith voicing some verses of a particularly ugly rap composition berating and demeaning Rodney King–essentially calling him an Uncle Tom. But in the manner of a jazz musician, Smith modulates and segues, again and again, through 65 minutes of variations in a minor key on the theme of the man’s life and actions. He dwells, naturally, on the horrific beating and the terrible trial, but he weaves in strand after strand of fact and makes the man, the human, more whole than 10,000 news reports could do.

Smith seems to have scoured all sources for his mass of telling details, which he vivifies with voice and movement. Very few performers have this level of vocal skill (and also know how to really use a microphone); fewer still can combine highly-skilled vocalization seamlessly with choreographed body-language. Yet–he’s not “playing” Rodney King. He invokes him, makes him appear–but he, Roger Guenveur Smith, is talking to him, Rodney King, questioning questioning questioning, and all the while pulling in strands of context and echoing history.

Eventually, Smith gets to Rodney King’s 2012 death by drowning in his own swimming pool, and the subsequent autopsy. In the performance on Sept. 2, he said that during the autopsy, King was “vivisected.” This clearly was not the accurate word, as King was already dead, but I thought it was the most brilliant of all the brilliant rhetorical strokes in the play. The Nazis vivisected people. The whole world had vivisected Rodney King with the razor knives of words. Roger Guenveur Smith had been vivisecting King’s life for close to an hour. The word generated the most horrible image, something that could overleap our accustomed horror at the events that made Rodney King’s name known around the world.

So, in the discussion afterward, I asked him why he used it. I thought he’d say something like the above. But he professed not to know that to vivisect is to cut up a live creature. He’s quite a wordsmith, so I think he may have been jiving me, especially since shortly thereafter he elicited from the audience the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (From Requiem for a Nun.) In that sense, Rodney King lives on, although his dead body was dissected and dismantled. King lives on among the undead of history, his reputation vulnerable still, but, fortunately, this artist wields his scalpel with mercy on his mind.




Every American should see this play, because our Constitutional protections are not always self-evident. The nightmare CAN happen here, and it has.

Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi, et al., in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PlayMakers. Photo: Laura Pates.

Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi, et al., in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PlayMakers Kenan Theatre, through April 27, 2014. Photo: Laura Pates.

I was in my 30s before I knew that the American government had rounded up innocent people and put them in camps–people other than native Indians, I mean. I knew there was more than plenty bad feeling about the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor bombing that sent the US into WWII. But I’d never heard a peep about the way Japanese-American immigrants and their American children had had been forced to leave everything and locked away, even growing up in a family where legal matters were regularly discussed.

In the last months of grad school, when I was overworked and mentally fried, I picked up a novel in the library instead of working on my thesis, and BOOM, there was the sorry story. Most of the internment camps were in the west, but one was in Arkansas. I mentioned this to my mother, and she said, oh yes, the camp was quite near where we lived. I just couldn’t get over her never having mentioned it, this huge wrong.

Later, sometime in the latter half of the 1990s, I visited the Japanese-American Museum in Los Angeles, and learned much more painful history. There was an exhibit about Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the few Nissei–that is to say, American citizen of Japanese ancestry–who fought the Executive Order (signed by Roosevelt!!!) that removed them from their homes. He lost his case, all the way up the line, the Supreme Court caving to the War Department, his position not being vindicated until decades later.

Jeanne Sakata’s remarkably balanced play about Hirabayashi will be at PlayMakers only through Sunday, April 27, and is highly recommended. Even if you already know the basic story, this particular story will move you. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, watching actor Joel de la Fuente create Hirabayashi young, old and in between, along with all the other characters in the story, is quite wonderful. Here’s my review.

(First published, in a slightly different form, 4/24/14 on indyweek.com, with the title PlayMakers’ Hold These Truths.)

PlayMakers concludes a season remarkable for its thoughtfulness on big topics, whether timely or timeless, with a PRC2 show. Hold These Truths spotlights a particularly sordid episode in 20th century American history, which is shamefully little known, and it offers a lens through which to look at more immediate concerns.

In the nationalistic war fever following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the pre-existing racism in western states against Japanese immigrants and their American children turned rabid. It was only intensified by the U.S. government’s decision to strip Japanese-Americans in states along the Pacific coast of all their property, their livelihoods, their rights as citizens and humans, and corral them into desolate, isolated camps. Desperate, and longing to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by their compliance, nearly 100,000 Issei—first generation immigrants—and Nissei—American born citizens of Japanese parents—packed their two suitcases and journeyed to America’s internment camps to live under armed guard behind barbed wire. Only three Nissei fought back with legal challenges.

One was Gordon Hirabayashi. Actress Jeanne Sakata, herself of Japanese ancestry, stumbled onto his story as an adult, and spent years crafting it into a one-man, one-act play, and herself into a playwright. She was able to interview Hirabayashi repeatedly, and to research his letters and other materials held at the University of Washington, where he had been a college student when war with Japan was declared, and when the infamous Executive Order 9066 was issued, allowing the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” and exclude and evacuate any or all persons—in reality, those of Japanese birth or ancestry.

A young man of unusually tough moral fiber, Hirabayashi believed that as an American he should not, and therefore could not, comply with this forced extirpation. So began his journey through the legal system, in defense of an American ideal that America’s own government was trampling.

Sakata’s play is deeply particular, an intimate telling of a heroic story lived by a captivating person, but its outlines fit other stories. One cannot help but think, today, of Edward Snowden, for instance. But that comes later, because actor Joel de la Fuente, under the direction of the remarkable Lisa Rothe (who directed last season’s powerful Penelope) fully engages your attention for the show’s fast-moving 85 minutes.

The show was first performed in 2007 in Los Angeles, but in 2012 it had an off-Broadway New York premiere at Epic Theatre with Rothe directing and de la Fuente creating the 30 or so characters that people Hirabayashi’s life. PlayMakers’ associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza saw it there and promptly began lobbying to include it in the PRC2 series, where it provides a coda to the year-long consideration of the some of the many forms of power madness, and the many forms of forgiveness possible, once even the shouting is over.

Joel de la Fuente in Jeanne Sakata's HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PRC. Photo: Laura Pates.

Joel de la Fuente in Jeanne Sakata’s HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PRC. Photo: Laura Pates.

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