Culture Report: Theater for Change

An impressive Jewish-Beduin co-production for children written and produced in the Negev.

August 23, 2017 10:08
Actors in the Hebrew-language version of ‘Nemesh Bat Shemesh’ performed by the Negev Theater are (fr

Actors in the Hebrew-language version of ‘Nemesh Bat Shemesh’ performed by the Negev Theater are (from left) Nir Saadon, Avishag Kahalani and Elinor Shoshan-Agiv, with Miguel Orbach on top.. (photo credit: EYAL BRIBRAM)

ONE DAY, the sun doesn’t rise and there is endless night. The birds, the moon, the stars, the rooster that expects to crow, all try to wake the sun. But she (the sun is definitely female) refuses to rise. She announces that she’s going on strike because she’s “fed up doing all the work in the world and not getting any credit.”

Thus begins an imaginative theatrical production aimed at young children, a joint project between two professional theater groups in the Negev ‒ one in Hebrew and one in Arabic. The original show, titled “Nemesh Bat Shemesh” (“Freckle, the Sun’s Daughter”) in Hebrew and “Shamshi Shamussi” (“My Precious Sunshine”) in Arabic, combines live performers interacting with filmed animated characters (think Disney’s “Mary Poppins”).

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The Arabic-language production has just had its opening performance at the Almahabash Theater in the Beduin city of Rahat. The cast includes well-known actors from the north and local professional Beduin performers. The Hebrew version, conceived, written and produced by the veteran regional Negev Theater, began its run a year ago and is still being shown around the country.

The plot of the play involves several characters ‒ some live, some animated ‒ who make pilgrimages to the sun to implore her to change her mind: The moon (male) is a literary, romantic figure who claims the sun is envious of him; the queen of the heavens arrives with her baby stars; the “professor,” a scientist who believes the sun is on strike because she’s being blamed for global warming; the (animated) sea god who complains that because he is becoming polluted the sun doesn’t want to sink into him anymore; and three animated birds, a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the action. Finally, a little red-headed girl (a live actor on film) comes to the sun to tell her that she is all the sun’s children “whom you’ve loved and kissed and the world is about to be destroyed if you don’t go back to your job.” Obviously, there is a happy ending.

Considering that the audience comprises very young children (ages 6-10), the play’s references to ethical and family values, care for the environment and the effects of jealousy seem a bit sophisticated. Yet, the children who have seen the Hebrew production have been enthusiastic ‒apparently young children here also understand the concept of going on strike, which involves the waving of protest placards.

The adaptation of “Nemesh” into Arabic for a Beduin audience is the fruit of a long-standing cooperative effort between the two theaters – and by extension – the two communities.

“We’re going through a very difficult period in Jewish-Arab relations, and this is a way to come together,” says Mahmoud Alamour, director of the Rahat Development Company and chairman of the Almahabash Theater. “The fact that it’s a Hebrew and Arabic production deepens our relationship; it’s a bridging project that is really meaningful.”

The Negev Theater is based in the Eshkol Regional Council in the western Negev, close to the border with Gaza. It was founded 31 years ago by the late Shmulik Shiloh, one of Israel’s most famous stage actors. Its repertoire over the years has included classical and original plays, but the theater maintains an underlying philosophy and objective of using only local talent and relating as much as possible to local realities and social issues.

“We do have an ideological identity,” explains its general manager, Issy Mamanov. “Our mission from the beginning has been to reach ‘the invisibles,’ to reach all the communities in the south,” he says, describing the audiences who are rarely exposed to theater.

That “mission” found its way to Rahat, the largest Beduin city in Israel and the world. With some 70,000 residents, Rahat remains an underserviced and divided community, which – despite recent improvements – suffers an unemployment rate three times the national average. And, although there are lively, long-established Arabic-language theaters in Israel, live theater of any kind is generally unknown in the Beduin community.

It was a Negev Theater performance in the city 12 years ago that inspired local actors and teachers to establish their own professional theater.

“From the time I was a child, I wanted to be an actor,” recalls Sahel Aldbsan, one of the founders of the Almahabash Theater, and today a professional actor, director and drama teacher. “Theater is not part of our culture. We’d only get to see plays once a year in school. We’d sit outside in the heat or the cold, 500-1,000 pupils of all ages, no one cared.”

WHEN HIS high school principal brought in a drama teacher, Aldbsan was hooked.

“This was a dream that followed me through school,” says Aldbsan, who plays the rooster in the show. After the Negev Theater performed in Rahat, he approached Alamour, then in charge of informal education, who helped launch the Almahabash.

Since then, the Almahabash has staged many original productions, winning prizes in festivals, and, crucially, gaining funding from the Culture Ministry. There are now approved plans to build an actual theater building in Rahat with a substantial grant from the National Lottery.

“Our budget has steadily increased from the ministry,” says Sahel. “I’m not a big fan of [Culture Minister] Miri Regev, but what you can say is that she has increased funding in the periphery and for the Arab sector.”

Many of the shows, including this latest children’s play, have been co-productions with the Negev Theater. Because of the sophisticated animation and music commissioned for the show, the Hebrew version of “Nemesh” was a costly endeavor.

“We thought that if we’ve already invested so much, we could extend this to a wider audience. Let’s do this in Arabic, as well,” recalls Mamanov. “When we suggested the idea to Rahat, we were afraid that their attitude would be one of suspicion, that ‘The Jews are coming again to teach us?’ But Mahmoud Alamour said he believed in the project and we’ve worked well together.”

ALTHOUGH BOTH the Negev and the Almahabash have insisted that their actors and directors be local, the decision was made for the Arabic version of the children’s show to bring in a cast of wellknown professional actors from Tel Aviv and Haifa. This was both to boost prestige, and because men and woman appear together on stage; in traditional Beduin culture, men and women do not mix in public, so the assumption was that “northerners” wouldn’t generate resistance among local theater goers.

“It’s quite an achievement and an honor to be able to bring top-notch actors to Rahat to appear in this show,” says Aldbsan, the only Beduin on stage. “On stage, we have all groups in the country represented in addition to Beduin ‒ a Muslim, a Christian Arab, a Druse ‒ all being directed by a Jewish director and choreographer. Where else do you find all these people on the same stage, working together to produce a show?”

The most famous of the “imported” actors is Yussef Abu Warda, the veteran stage actor who gained a certain celebrity for his appearance in the popular long-running Israeli TV crime series Haborer (The Arbitrator).

“I’d never before acted in a children’s production, though I have friends who have done it. I wanted to experience this for myself,” he says.

Abu Warda, who started his career with the Beersheba Theater, said he felt it was important to help an Arabic-language theater in the south succeed.

“These young people in the Beduin community really want to improve their situation, including culturally. I feel a certain mission for the experienced Arab actors in the country to do what we can to encourage these young people. It’s important to have something local and not just plays that are brought in from the north.”

His character speaks in what is known as literary Arabic, but there are characters who speak in “Beduin Arabic” dialect, which is immediately understandable by native speakers.

CRITICS TEND to relate to “children’s theater,” perhaps not without reason, as B-grade productions, cliché performances with predictable plots and music. This show “Nemesh Bat Shemesh”/“Shamshi Shamussi” is clearly something very different. The original musical score by David Waldmann has been adapted for the Arabic version, integrating recordings by local oud players.

“Children don’t lie. The challenge is to put on a show that enthralls a young audience, and that’s what we’ve done,” says director Yaacov Amsellem, who directed both the Hebrew and Arabic versions.

Amsellem, who has long experience in directing community and youth theater, conceived of the idea of taking the original script by local playwright Ilanit Suissa and creating a combination of animation and live acting.

“I thought this is the only way children can understand the story,” he says, explaining, “The actors have to be absolutely accurate and precise delivering their lines because they are playing against an animated film, so there is no room for mistakes or timing errors.”

Rauda Sliman, who plays the part of the sun with humorous abandon, says it is a very special production. “Even though there are animated characters, they are still characters that we on stage have to interact with and relate to them as partners, never to lose the focus on the screen.

“This isn’t the first time this has been done, but this is innovative in a production for children,” says Sliman, who has produced many children’s shows and appears in various Arabic productions around the country.

“Frankly, I’m not very optimistic about the situation in our lives,” she continues, “but I believe that if we are to make any changes, we have to work with our children. They are our future, and we can only hope that through them we can make changes on every level,” she states. “This is the reason I agreed to come all the way from Haifa to appear in Rahat. It’s very moving to see their enthusiasm for the theater.”

Everyone involved in the co-production insists that, contrary to expectations perhaps, there haven’t been any social tensions.

“Everything we do is a matter of real partnership and coexistence. It’s not only work, we have a really strong connection,” says Negev Theater general manager Mamanov. “We’ve shown it’s possible to change a society’s social consciousness through theater.”

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