The suitcase is a fraud.
It is small and leather and tattered, sky blue, and Yossi Wassa, sitting on a dark stage, hugs it to his chest. Ethiopian music plays lightly in the background, and Wassa, thin with dreadlocks and open-necked cotton shirt, begins speaking. He talks about his days as a child in a Jewish family in northern Ethiopia, his 430-mile trek by foot and donkey to Sudan, his memories of the Operation Moses airlift to Israel in 1985, his arrival at an absorption center in Netanya.
But he came to the Promised Land empty handed.
The suitcase is a prop.
Wassa, who found his voice as an actor in the Israeli army, then started doing a one-man show about an immigrant’s life, written with army buddy Shai Ben Attar, and hooked up with the Nephesh Theatre in Tel Aviv.
"I believe that God moved me in this direction," he says.
Combining humor and lachrymose narrative, he travels around Israel performing in Amharic before Ethiopian audiences, in Hebrew before Israeli crowds, telling his people’s story through the eyes of one person: Andragee Vassa, whose name was changed to typically Sabra Yossi by a bureaucrat when he arrived in Israel at 10.
Wassa (to Israelis, he’s Vassa) grips the suitcase’s handle and walks in the spotlight, the words spilling out slowly.
The suitcase is a symbol.
Wassa, who brought his show ("It sounds better in Amharic") to the United States for the first time last month is talking these days, in English, about the descendants of past Jewish migrations. And he is talking for them.
"It’s a Jewish thing, moving from place to place," he says.
Which member of the tribe isn’t descended from some wandering Jews? Which one doesn’t find something familiar in Wassa’s story, the artistic grandchild of Sholem Aleichem’s bittersweet depictions of life in another corner of the Jewish world?
"I love Sholem Aleichem," Wassa, 27, says. He’s read the master of the Yiddish short story. "In Hebrew, of course."
Wassa is holding court one recent morning between shows, dressed in a regal jogging suit, in a Manhattan hotel room. His English, which he learned in Israel, is almost as fluent as his Hebrew, which he also picked up when he made aliyah.
In Israel, he’s a household name: at least in the households where Amharic is the language of choice. "Ethiopians, of course, know me," Wassa says.
He’s one of the first Ethiopian olim to make a success in popular culture, combining an Ethiopian and Israeli sense of humor. Wassa has done two best-selling videotapes of his act.
"The show is about the gap between Ethiopia and Israel, between Africa and the Western world," he says.
Many of the Ethiopians who come to his show can’t follow it; they don’t know enough Hebrew. But they understand its message, about the immigration experience, the army, the bureaucracy, delivered through an outsider’s perspective.
"They know the story," Wassa says. "I’m talking about their life."
For the Ethiopians, for the Israelis, the inside jokes draw laughs. For an American crowd, the references are explained or excised.
"Once upon a time," he says about life in his native land, "in our village in Ethiopia, I saw a white guy! Unbelievable. For me, he was a medical miracle."
Then there was his pious grandmother.
"My grandmother had a very special relationship to Jerusalem," Wassa begins. "To her, Jerusalem was heaven. Everything we did had to be connected to Jerusalem. The mules had to be tied pointing east. We had to sing ‘Praise Jerusalem’ before every meal. And when we finally sat down to eat, she made us chew in the direction of the Wailing Wall."
Wassa’s act includes music, some reggae, some Israeli rock, the "Pink Panther" theme. In his life’s story, from beginnings on a subsistence farm in the Gondar region, are starvation and disease and discrimination. And death. Two young brothers and his grandmother died in the Sudanese refugee camp.
Hardly the stuff of comedy.
He’s not a stand-up comic, though he’s mastered the art’s timing and delivery, Wassa says. "I’m a storyteller. The basic story is true: it’s theater. It’s a sad story." And the sad parts don’t come right away, he points out.
Humor, tempering the tragedy, belongs even in the most morose of stories, he maintains. "Humor comes even from these places. Humor is how you deal with your problems. It helps you to go on," Wassa says.
The show isn’t selfless, he says. "I’m doing this for me. I like making people laugh. I don’t run away from myself.
"You laugh," Wassa says. "You think about the sad things later. Sometimes I see people laughing and then they are crying. That’s what I want."
"I want to bring [the Ethiopian community] self-confidence," he says. "It is important for the Israelis to know about the Ethiopians: not just the facts but the feelings."
In Israel, he performs 18 to 20 times a month, at kibbutzes and "a lot of schools."
His parents have come to a few shows. "They don’t understand what I’m doing," he says. In Ethiopia, with little tradition of self-deprecating humor, with no history of openly criticizing government authorities, what he’s doing is terra incognita. "These things are very new for them."
One observation: in Israel, white Jews and black Jews sit together in the audience. In his U.S. appearances, college shows sponsored by the academic department of the Israeli Consulate with frequent participation by college-based black groups, blacks and whites sit separately. "It’s so sad for me," Wassa says.
His appearances around New York, with shows at Hunter College, NYU and Stony Brook, will be followed by a swing west. Then back to Israel.
He hopes to come back here later this year. The suitcases he packs will be real.