Writer: Aaron Davidman
Director: Michael John Garcés
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
To say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, is to understate a struggle for homeland that has existed for centuries. From the opening moment of his show, writer and performer Aaron Davidman faces these complications head on, from both sides of the story. By the end of the production, the audience has encountered snippets of the first person narratives of seventeen different people, all of whom exist in the real world. This is ultimately Davidman’s journey, and it is through his eyes and experiences that we see the conflict. Still, the intended, and achieved, purpose of Wrestling Jerusalem is to open our eyes to the side of the geopolitical clash other than the one with which we might already sympathize.
Brooklyn-born, with a Yiddish-speaking father, he is raised with ideals that are synonymous, in his mid-20th century American upbringing, with Communist and progressive ideals, e.g. human compassion and workers’ rights. Fast forward to the present-day struggle in a sliver of the Middle East, and he is faced with the possibility that actions taken by the Israeli military—a country that he lived and studied in in 1993, when peace felt like it was right around the corner—do not conform to the morals with which he was raised.
He asks, as one of the compassionately portrayed characters that populate the stage, Is it a war? If it is a war, there are certain codes of conduct that are acceptable, that in day to day life would be inhumane at minimum. But in war, in response to an enemy’s attack, in order to save your homeland and your family, a soldier does and sees things that might otherwise escape the realm of what one could stomach and comes to terms with.
Out of the sixteen characters, narrator not included, five are Palestinians, seven Israeli, three Americans and a Briton. There are eleven men and five women. Ages range from twenties to sixties.
Without getting deeply into the politics of the current impasse, or the myriad historical points of view one could take, and looking at Wrestling Jerusalem strictly from a theatrical point of view, it is a strong and affecting piece. It is an exploration of generational suffering and the scars it passes on from parent to child. Ruminating on what might happen when politics and physiology become interchangeable, and why a oneness of humanity is always more powerful and yet inherently harder to realize than an Us V. Them narrative, Davidman leads us through a well-thought out, beautifully lit show about heavy subject matter, still managing to carry some humor and optimism throughout the whole show. There are striking vocal moments that showcase the aural similarity of the warring sides, highlighting the tragedy in a way words alone simply couldn’t.
There are some awkwardly directed transitions between scenes and characters in the latter portion of the show, as well as certain sections throughout the narration that might benefit from being presented more conversationally and less like the stereotypical rhythm of downtown spoken word poets. However these flaws are hardly outstanding enough to detract from the honest response this show provokes in its audience. At one performance’s post-show talkback, when asked to find a single word for their immediate reactions after the final blackout, answers ranged from hopeless and unresolved, to awe and relief. One woman offered numb, and after taking a moment to reflect decided that in fact, she felt satisfied.
The audience was primarily Jewish, but hopefully that will not continue to be the case. Humans of all ethnic and political descriptions would benefit from the expansion of knowledge and compassion that comes with having their preconceived notions both supported and challenged.
Runs until 17 April 2016