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.