Pain and Passion Permeate "Wrestling Jerusalem"

by Jean Schiffman

In his new one-man show, Aaron Davidman explores the complexities of the Middle East.

“To understand the Middle East, one has to be able to hold a simultaneity of truths,” says Intersection for the Arts artist-in-residence Aaron Davidman, whose new solo show, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” opens this month.

A self-described “Everyman progressive American Jew,” Davidman first visited Israel in 1992 at the age of 25, to study Torah. “After that trip, I knew there was some synthesis I was reaching for,” he says, sipping tea at a Berkeley café in the Elmwood district near his home. “I knew the storyteller in me and the young Jewish man in me—those two parts would come together somehow.”

But it wasn’t until he became artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre (TJT) in 2002—a post he held until the theater’s demise in 2011—and returned to Israel and Palestine that he knew he must write a play about that troubled part of the world.

Commissioned by Theatre J in Washington, D.C., “Wrestling Jerusalem” was originally intended to explore the tragic deaths of Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl. But it evolved dramatically through workshops at TJT, Sundance and the San Francisco Playwrights Foundation, under the direction of playwright/director Aaron Posner.

Now, with its world premiere at Intersection directed by Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theatre Company, the short and tightly structured piece embodies the many different voices, points of view and opinions that Davidman encountered on several trips to the much-disputed Holy Land. He considers it a hybrid form, inspired by the autobiographical work of Spalding Gray and the transformational theater pieces of Anna Deavere Smith and says it’s the most challenging and ambitious project of his theatrical career.

A performer since his Berkeley High School years, Davidman has a degree in acting from Carnegie Mellon and an MFA in playwriting from San Francisco State. He based “Wrestling Jerusalem” on real events and actual people he interviewed and recorded, plus composite and invented characters based on people he met and conversations he had. Most of the real people’s stories are repeated verbatim, with only their names changed to protect their privacy.

He whittled the characters down to 12. Among them are a fervent, friendly Muslim who tells him we are all the same under God; the son of Holocaust survivors whose teenage son died in a bus bombing in Haifa, and who had attended a peace camp for Israeli and Palestinian children two weeks prior to his death; an Arab woman whose commute between East Jerusalem and Ramallah—though just a short geographical distance—takes her hours each day; a lieutenant commander in the Special Forces who served in the West Bank (“You find yourself doing, for maybe the right purpose, or for your need, doing very bad things, very immoral things…”); an older Israeli-Arab woman; a religious Jew who declares, “We’ve been running for thousands of years. We’re not running anymore”; a Jewish activist (and former member of the Knesset) who laments that Jews have historically fought for human rights—but “It’s not the case in Israel”; a Palestinian who says there will be no two-state solution—“We will rule this land again”—and a Jewish-American medical student who supports Hamas and says, “I’m fighting for the underdog. Remember the Holocaust? Apparently not!”

Also in the mix is Aaron Davidman himself, an open-minded visitor attempting to hold, and now to share with audiences, all the varying viewpoints involved. “I had to get to the [essence] of all the characters I portray,” he reflects, “find the juiciest parts of what they had to say and really condense it.”

Threaded among the various monologues and dialogues that comprise the text are singing, choreographed movement, gestural language and abstractions, humor and a Kabbalistic story (a story of creation told by the Jewish mystics, who say that it is the work of human beings to “repair,” or heal, the world). To arrive at that story, says Davidman, is to arrive at a transcendent place—“Whatever that means!”—in this narrative of chaos and tragedy and conflict. “I start the play at the point of The Problem,” he says, “and then we loosen things up a bit, take a little breath, and then I’m coming back to The Problem. And in and out again.”

Lists, too, are in the script: Headlines: Occupation; Invasion; Assassination; Suicide bombing; Bulldozing … Jenin; Bil’in … Judea, Samaria, apartheid…

They help to tell the tale of cacophony, says Davidman--“in a way, to embrace the bombardment we’re experiencing, with the headlines and the news. I want to transcend polemic, and at the same time I’m exploiting it in order to remember that it’s there.”

For Garcés, “Wrestling Jerusalem” held an immediate attraction. Having grown up in Colombia, he is familiar with the notion of global reconciliation and perpetration of violence and how people deal with a power imbalance. He also identifies with American Jews’ investment in the conflict at the same time as they are not exactly of the conflict. And he is familiar with creating new work based on social themes, because that is Cornerstone’s mission.

“I think it’s a really interesting play about a man grappling with his identity,” he says. “We can all empathize with that on a very real level. So there are times when you’re not watching a play of politics but of someone [struggling] with the nature of identity and violence. What does it mean when I believe in something and violence comes out of that, which I don’t accept or agree with? How do I [deal] with that morally? I think there’s a very human story here that I find very moving and that is intertwined with the issues.

“I’m hoping that seeing the play, and the way Aaron honors a variety of perspectives,” he continues, “will allow people to enter the conversation afterward [at a Peace Cafe gathering after every Sunday matinee] with a mind to at least listen to others with some empathy and good faith….

“I do think plays will change the world,” he adds. “But change happens over time.”

“This is not a protest play,” says Davidman, “unless—and I like to say this—it’s protesting polemic. It says we need to embrace complexity and nuance if we’re going to have a different conversation that will lead to a resolution. Because we’re stuck.

“The narrative of Israel and Palestine is an evolving one and it’s also a narrative that has a lot of competing bylines to it. Which one is the right one? As the new generation of writers and thinkers, like [Israeli journalist and author] Ari Shavit, begin to tell their stories, a different perspective emerges, and history starts to look much more complex, layered, nuanced.

“What I was struggling with the most,” he continues, “was, how could I translate my own heartbreak and my own conflictedness and my own hope and fear and madness—how can I share that with my audience in a way so that it can land as a dramatic experience?”

In the end, he says, “I have to live with all these people in me, all these voices, all this pain and passion and opinion and tsuris.”

Mar. 12 → Apr. 6

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission St.

(415) 626-2787