This country is, of course, no stranger to waves of immigration; and each new community goes through absorption difficulties and struggles for acceptance by the establishment.
The Ethiopian community has certainly had its fair share of the above and continues to grapple with survival issues on several fronts. All this makes the award of first prize at this year's Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater to Matoko's House, performed by Ethiopian theater troupe Hullegeb, and the Best Actor award to Hullegeb member Beyne Getahun all the more noteworthy. The awards were followed by an audience last week with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at which the Confederation House-based company received local recognition for its artistic work.
Naturally, Confederation House director Effie Benaya was delighted with the enthusiastic response to the play. Benaya has supported Ethiopian artistic activities for some time now, starting six years ago with the Ras Deshen musical synergy between Jerusalem-born now Australian-resident composer-pianist Yitzhak Yedid and Ethiopian jazz-blues saxophonist Abate Berihun. Berihun provides most of the musical backdrop to Matoko's House.
"Back then, no one really thought about Ethiopian culture," notes Benaya. "The community had to deal with discrimination and all sorts of problems both within and outside the community, and no one heard about what it had to offer culturally. At Confederation House we have tried to support Ethiopian artists and provide them with a vehicle to express their talents and work. The Acre awards are very gratifying."
That is a sentiment to which Moshe Malka fully subscribes. As director of Matoko's House, Malka says he aimed to draw on the unique cultural baggage of the Ethiopian community and fuse it with more mainstream theatrical elements. "I think we have managed to produce a new theatrical language," says Malka. "We used the actors' movement skills, their visual language and music, as well as drawing on their personal stories, and ended up with something very special."
The show's storyline is, to say the least, intriguing. The play tells the story of Matoko Melaso, who is intent on making good on his promise to his late mother to marry his intended. One day he discovers that his home, a caravan, and fiancÃ©e have both disappeared. What follows is nothing short of a surreal odyssey in search of an ever-elusive quarry that takes Matoko across the length and breadth of the country. It also invokes shades of Ephraim Kishon as Matoko enters into a difficult correspondence with all manner of government officials, his poor command of Hebrew notwithstanding, and encounters a motley array of characters, each with his or her own story to tell.
This leads the story and the audience along a twisty road of exploration and discovery, and there are some tough encounters, too. "Matoko discovers all sorts of stories about Ethiopians," explains Malka, "including prostitution and challenging liaisons with Beduin pimps, and stories of secular Ethiopians who become very religious, which completely ruins some families."
Malka, who is not Ethiopian, says that working with Hullegeb - which in Amharic means something along the lines of "all-encompassing" - gave him a lot of artistic options. "Naturally, people from different origins bring their own baggage into play," he says. "With Ethiopians there is a lot of movement and music, and there is also a lot of improvisation. The show was definitely a work that evolved as we went along."
One of the actors, Tehila Yeshayahu-Adghe, 35, from Kiryat Hayovel, made it to Israel as a nine-year-old. Although she and her family didn't encounter too many problems en route, she is aware of some of the horror stories endured by some of her compatriots and says she brings some of that and her own background to the fore in her role in Matoko's House. "I bring something different compared to an Israeli-born actor. We all bring our own things to the stage," she notes, adding that Malka helped to enhance the final product. "Moshe Malka knows how to use our added value and to leave a new kind of impression on the audience."
While delighted with the Acre award, Yeshayahu-Adghe feels there is still some way to go before the Ethiopian community is fully accepted by Israeli society and says there still is a lot to be dealt with by the community as a whole. "There are still plenty of cultural differences between us and Western society," she explains. "Ethiopians, for example, don't have a leisure-time mentality. There was only a handful of Ethiopians in our audiences in Acre. That's not because they have anything against Matoko's House. They just don't consider going out for an evening's entertainment an option."
But, for her, Matoko's House is first and foremost about producing high-quality entertainment and art and less about trying to highlight the specific plight of the community as a whole. "Art and creation come before any statement that might come through in this show. It is important for me that the audience is excited, moved and identifies with what is going on on the stage. That's my job. If I can convey a message too, that's fine, but it's not the most important thing. Matoko's House is a human story of any immigrant, regardless of skin color or cultural origins."
Yeshayahu-Adghe certainly had her work cut out for her in the show. Her role as an outcast drug addict mother who gives her son away for adoption introduced her to areas of life she hadn't previously encountered. "I read up about drug addiction, and it took a lot of strength to build the role," she says adding, however, that she has gained a lot from her research and the show. "I am less afraid now about such things. I am still turned off by the idea of drugs, but I am much more knowledgeable about that area of life now."
She also says that while the story behind Matoko's House may seem fanciful, it isn't that far from reality. "I once met someone who told me that her son's caravan home just disappeared one day, just like Matoko's. Sometimes reality and fantasy do meet."
For Yeshayahu-Adghe, last week's get-together with Barkat and the Acre award also went beyond the confines of her cultural group. "I have been living in Jerusalem for 14 years and am happy the show brought more recognition for the arts in Jerusalem."
For now, the Hullegeb troupe is working on getting some dates for performances of Matoko's House at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv and at The Lab in Jerusalem. Stay tuned.