Exploring the Mideast Conflict With an Open Heart

After years of planning and collaboration, San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre has brought its new play Blood Relative to the stage. Formed with input from all five performers, along with director Aaron Davidman and dramaturg Naomi Newman, the play centers around a young man living in Israel, but born to a Muslim Palestinian father and a Jewish Israeli mother. His struggle for identity and inner turmoil serves as a representation for the ongoing struggle and turmoil that engulfs the land he lives in.

This is Traveling Jewish Theatre’s 22nd original work since its founding in 1978. Despite their name, TJT’s diverse production history (exploring issues from Trotsky’s assassination to women’s wisdom) has realized their mission statement’s intention to “reach the hearts and minds of people from all cultural backgrounds … in collaboration with theatre artists from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.” Their name comes from the theatrical and cultural background of the original founders, as well as the fact that they were “inspired by the rich fabric of Jewish experience, history, and imagination.”

In the dynamic opening of the play, frenetic rap music in an unrecognizable language climaxes in the darkness and is suddenly silenced, as a young man with a bloody shirt and a bandage across his nose appears onstage. He appears shaken and disoriented, meek and quiet. Suddenly he breaks out in an animalistic tantrum, overturning or tearing down everything in the room, until he has made chaos from order and created himself a childish kind of fort in which to hide under his bed. Aware of the play’s subject, the audience can already see in this small apartment an analogy to the violent entropy of the Middle East.

Immediately, we are introduced to the pattern the rest of the play follows: the young man, Ibi (played with undeniable empathy by Ibrahim Miari, who is himself an Israeli of Palestinian and Jewish descent), is confronted by a steady parade of characters (some real and present, some from memories, and some completely imagined), all of whom try to get him to do or feel something he is reluctant to do or feel.

Embodying the major conflict in Ibi’s life are the living memories of his grandfather (Eric Rhys Miller) and grandmother (Nora El Samahy). His Jewish grandfather, who immigrated to Israel from Canada to realize the Zionist dream, wants him to be proud of his Jewish heritage – religious, cultural, and political – and to never forget his Jewish history of suffering and persecution. His Muslim Palestinian grandmother tells him colorful tales of his royal Arab history, encourages him to be stoic and hold his emotions inside, and reminds him of the way in which she and her family were forcibly exiled from their homes as children. Both loved Ibi deeply, and taught him beautiful songs and stories when he was a child. But always underlying their love was an implicit need for him to be completely on their own side; not because they wanted it to be difficult for their grandson, but because they simply could not fathom the feelings of the other side.

We also meet Ibi’s Jewish uncle (Corey Fischer), a veteran of the Israeli army who has been badly scarred by his experiences and left somewhat empty, who weighs on Ibi both monetarily and mentally with his wandering tales of the old days, and his lack of interest in anything more than something to kill the pain, at least momentarily. He provides a possible vision of Ibi’s future, if Ibi keeps trying to ignore and block out his pain and conflict. Then there is a cleaning lady (Meirav Kupperberg, also a resident of Israel) who will not stop coming back to clean Ibi’s apartment and talk to him every Thursday, no matter how he pleads. She is perhaps the most positive character in the play, a voice of simple reason – positive, but realistic, and always willing to talk things out.

Ibi moves back and forth in his mind over the timeline of his life, talking to these characters, laughing with them, arguing with them, trying to understand them, and trying to explain himself to them. Most scenes culminate in dead ends; growing pain or frustration at his situation, or remembered or imagined beatings, shootings, and other abuses at the hands of militants on one side or the other.

The final scene of the play is structured as a talk show (existing in Ibi’s imagination, but reminiscent of many that can be seen on American television every afternoon) in which the host facilitates an argument among a reluctant Ibi, a Jewish Israeli woman who wants all Palestinians to return to Israel and can’t stop apologizing for everything “her people” have ever done and everything bad that’s ever happened to Palestinians, a snide young American who recently moved to Israel and uses the Holocaust and scripture he hasn’t ever read to justify the displacement of Palestinians, and a laconic female Palestinian PLO leader who is totally consumed by her bitterness and anger. Everyone has their own very clear agenda to advance, no one is willing to listen to or try to understand anyone else, and of course everyone wants Ibi on their side, and resents his insistence on neutrality. This scene is the best in the show for several reasons. It is certainly the funniest scene in the play. (After the Jewish Israeli woman walks into the audience, groveling and apologizing for everything under the sun for at least a minute, the young Jewish American snaps, “Why don’t you just apologize for killing Jesus and get it over with?”) The actors get to play broad, humorous characters, and all clearly have fun doing so. They must feel good getting to let go after all of the seriousness, just as the audience feels good to get to laugh a bit.

But the talk show scene is far more than mere comic relief. It works well because it is such a simple, clever showcase for a point the show has already attempted to articulate in subtler ways: The only chance for change in the Middle East, the only chance for peace, is through open, honest communication among people on both sides. It won’t work unless everyone is willing not only to speak candidly, but to listen respectfully and try to understand. This scene of egotistical, ignorant, and na├»ve bickering and ludicrously irrational argument also provides another excellent analogy for the pure madness and absurdity of the Middle East conflict. Even as the audience laughs at the absurd extremity of the characters’ actions, they recognize the familiar arguments here more clearly than anywhere else in the play. Finally, the scene’s humor invites the audience to let its emotional guard down, so that Ibi’s final monologue, in which he turns his own bruised body and tortured soul into a metaphor for his battered and divided land and finally comes to understand he must accept all of who he is, all the more effective.

Sets and lighting were excellent; never distracting but always providing adequate support for the performers. Musician Daniel Hoffman provided perfect musical accompaniment on multiple instruments from the Arab and Jewish traditions; his subtle and artful interpretation of Georges Lammam’s compositions were vital in setting the scenes and underlining the emotions expressed. Performances were good all around, as organic and sincere as would be expected from a 10-week, collaborative rehearsal period, plus over a year of prior preparation. No doubt the fact that three of the performers are Jewish, two are residents of Israel, and two are of Middle Eastern origin helped them to create their multiple characters with such emotional realism.

The production does have some minor obstacles its audience must overcome. Blood Relative seems to take for granted that the audience knows as much about Israeli and Palestinian history, culture, and language, and Muslim and Jewish religious tradition, as the creators seem to, and at times the layman in the audience is left with a feeling that he missed the specifics of what has been discussed or what has occurred in a scene. Thankfully, the play’s overarching themes and the immense human interest of the story still come through, thanks to the solid cast’s comfort in negotiating the difficult and diverse emotional and mental ground of the play, and their excellent theatrical communication skills. Also to TJT’s credit, the production’s program provides a wealth of helpful information, along with some well-written director’s notes.

The other frustration of the play is perhaps inherent in exploring the nature of the Middle East conflict: In the end, there is no clear answer given to the questions, no easy solution to the conflict. For nearly two hours the audience laughs with, cries with, and joins the world of Ibi as he is tormented by all sorts of characters in his mind, all pulling him in different directions, trying to force him to choose a side, make peace with himself, and confront the issues, while all he can do is try to stay numb to it all, because it’s too painful and confusing. He can’t even take refuge from his pain in hatred, the way so many Israelis and Palestinians do, because to do so would be to hate half of himself. He feels that because he cannot fully identify with either side, he is neither – he is nothing. In the final moments of the play, Ibi does experience a sort of catharsis and finds a sort of resolution in realizing he cannot escape his own demons. But, of course, this is not the end of the story. This does not change the fact that he will always be torn between two worlds, and that the horrible and violent struggle still rages in the land where he lives.

Nonetheless, the message we are left with is perhaps a positive one: In order to find peace within, Ibi realizes he cannot hide from the pain he feels and the conflict he faces, nor can he simply forget one side of his feelings and completely embrace the other. As difficult as it is, he must confront his demons, or he can never beat them. He must accept that he is made of diverse parts, or he will never feel whole. Likewise, the conflict and pain of all the people in the region can never begin to be solved, the wounds never healed, the peace never found, unless its people are able to open their hearts and minds to each other, and stop trying to remain numb to each others’ words, feelings, and essential humanity.

For more information, check out Traveling Jewish Theatre on the web, or e-mail TJT’s Devra Aarons.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Blood Relative plays through May 1 in Berkeley, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets are still available online or by calling the box office at (415) 285-8080.