Staging A Conflict’s Complexity
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Staging A Conflict’s Complexity

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

My favorite proverb,” theater artist Aaron Davidman says, “is that your enemy is someone whose story you do not know.” His new one-man show, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” which hits that theme head-on, will be performed this weekend at the JCC Manhattan. “People often ask me to explain what is going on in the Middle East,” he said. “My play is an 85-minute, 17-character answer to that question.”

Davidman is best known as the artistic director of the Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco, an avant-garde ensemble company that closed in 2011 after 35 years; Davidman premiered “Wrestling Jerusalem” there during its final season. The play was commissioned in 2007 by Ari Roth, several years before he was dismissed from Theater J in Washington, D.C., for his controversial Voices from the Middle East Festival, “Wrestling Jerusalem.” It is, in Davidman’s words, “an attempt to go beyond polemic and to move audiences toward more complex understandings of the conflict.”

Davidman’s characters (based on real people he met during his travels in the region, although he said that he took “plenty of dramatic license”) include a Muslim man who tries to convert him to Islam, a Jewish father from Haifa whose son was killed by a bomb on a bus, a Palestinian woman who works for the United Nations, a religious Jewish settler, and a hawkish American Jewish defender of Israel.

Davidman was inspired, he said, by Kabbalah, particularly the idea of divine vessels exploding because they could not contain God’s light. “I’m trying to expand in my ability to hold all this multiplicity within myself,” he noted. “I’m intrigued by the idea of needing to put the shards back together, which we call tikkun olam.”

In presenting the play, which is presented by the New Israel Fund, Reboot and Lab Shul and performed against an abstract painted backdrop, Davidman said that he claims “no authority except that of my own experiences and the relationships that I built.” While he concedes that he “doesn’t have a peace plan,” he sees his play as providing “the beginning of what could lead to peace, which is the ability to see each other.”

He particularly enjoys performing the play for college-age audiences (he appeared at Brown last month, and has been invited to Sonoma State), since the younger generation, he said, is both “profoundly disconnected from Israel,” according to recent studies, and is also “really confused and conflicted about the conflict — the play gives them permission to struggle and to wrestle.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will be performed Thursday, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m. at the JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. $25; jccmanhattan.org.

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