six characters 88 298.
(photo credit: Nathan Burstein)
Many audience members will understand only half of Six Characters in Search of a Plot, a new play in Arabic and Hebrew staged for a captivated audience at Jerusalem's YMCA Tuesday evening.
Featuring a cast of Arab and Jewish Israelis from Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, the play will be performed at Kibbutz Baram on Saturday evening and at Umm el-Fahm January 15 as a prelude to further Israeli performances and planned American tour this fall.
With its Arab and Jewish cast and bilingual script, Six Characters is an unusual experiment in peacemaking, an attempt by its creators to spark creative thinking and dialogue about how Jews and Arabs can transcend their divergent historical narratives to create a better shared future. Combining themes of birth, death and the ever-present threat of violence, the play manages to hold the attention even of those unable to understand much of its script.
Mixed metaphors abound in the new work, which opens with Arab and Jewish midwives explaining the process of childbirth, and the precise balance of hormones required for a healthy delivery. Alone and in pairs, actors stretch and contract their bodies like fetuses in utero - allusions to the Jacob and Esau story and to "Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome," a condition in which one twin receives more of its mother's blood with potentially fatal results for both. Elsewhere in the play, history is described as a "blind old man dragged along by a prostitute," an image brought to life against a throbbing musical background.
Audience members are not likely to comprehend everything the actors are trying to tell them, even if they do understand both Arabic and Hebrew or have read the English synopsis of each scene that was provided at the Jerusalem performance. Six Characters avoids straightforward messages about the conflict or how the play's differing themes are connected. One of the dominant ideas, says Billy Yalowitz, Six Characters' director and choreographer, is that "wielding history as a weapon doesn't move things forward in resolving the conflict, and that historical claims and the painful emotions that accompany them tend to stall real communication and listening."
An assistant professor at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Yalowitz was invited to direct Six Characters six months ago by the Peace Child Israel project, which uses theater and artistic programming to teach Jewish and Arab children about co-existence, tolerance and other values vital for peace. A conversation with the actors followed Tuesday's performance, and the evening concluded with a brief moderated discussion between audience members themselves. At each of the show's, audience members are invited to sign up for dialogue groups at the conclusion of the program.
Though language barriers make the play and follow-up discussions a challenge, Yalowitz said linguistic differences actually aided work on the play. "There was a lot of laughter about the translation process, and a need to choose words carefully to mediate the very strong emotions about the conflict," he said.
Written by east Jerusalem resident Mohammed Thaher, Six Characters will take its language issues to the Cameri and Haifa theaters and to the Akko Festival before a planned US tour in the fall.
Audience members won't understand all that they see, but after a viewing of the unconventional project it's inevitable that they'll start talking.