A modern-day Pessah story

The real-life exodus of thousands of Ethiopian Jews: from Africa to the Holy Land - to Broadway.

Ethiopian 88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Ethiopian 88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
For most Jews, tales of wandering through the desert to the Holy Land are confined to the retelling of the Pessah story at the Seder table. For a select few Ethiopian Jews, there exists a very personal tale in the same vein - of a perilous journey by foot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem through 700 kilometers of Sudanese desert. Yossi Vassa, as a veteran of this remarkable crossing, represents this modern-day Pessah hero. But Vassa's story, in stark contrast to the biblical version, gets told several times a week as he and a troupe of fellow Ethiopian-Israeli actors entertain theatergoers with a production based on his remarkable journey. Vassa's play, One of a Kind - AndArgay, is the essence of the modern Pessah story; the parallels between the actor's tale and the biblical story are remarkable. Both deal with an exodus from a land in which the Jewish population faced discrimination and lack of opportunity; a long arduous journey through a harsh desert and frightening confrontations with hostile forces en route; an agonizing wait to finally enter Israel - in the latter-day version, represented by a two-year stint in a Sudanese refugee camp; and finally, like Moses, one of the play's elders perishes before the final crossing, never realizing the dream of entering the land of milk and honey. The lead character, AndArgay, is a 10-year-old boy played by Vassa and based, in part, on his own experience. It is through his eyes that the story of a family swept up in the Ethiopian-Jewish emigration to Israel is told. The audience gets a glimpse into the unique way of life of Ethiopian Jewry and bears witness to a family as it deals with a gut-wrenching quandary: whether to remain in the only home it has ever known, or to leave for a country which, for generations, has lived only in its folklore. Both choices come with a steep price: to remain means continuing to face the taunts of "Falash" and the restrictions placed on a marginalized social group, while going off into the unknown brings threat of peril and possible death. The journey that ultimately ensues evidences the family's struggle for identity, its dreams and the high price paid to realize them. The play is a richly textured production that employs song, dance and drama to tell its story. In a unique use of animation, traditional Ethiopian drawings are projected onto a screen and act as an extension to both the cast and set. The human actors interact with their animated counterparts to create a vibrant and larger than life performance that entertains as much as it tells a story. An original score that fuses traditional African beats with modern reggae provides a rich backing for the ensemble dance routines. For Vassa though, it's more than just entertainment. "The play is unique in the way it's told - there's an innocence to it, even though it's a choreographed show. There's something very spiritual because it talks about person, place and God." The production has been a runaway success, winning several awards, including Best Play at the prestigious Haifa International Children's Theater Festival and the National Award for Excellence in Theater for Children and Youth. It's been staged more than 100 times in the past year alone, bewitching audiences from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona. THIS IS NOT the first time Vassa has drawn upon his own experience as inspiration for the stage. The actor performed It Sounds Better in Amharic, a one-man show which deals with the adjustment of moving to modern-day Israel, some 600 times. "To be honest," says Vassa, "I am surprised to be back doing another show that focuses on the Ethiopian-Israeli issue. After my last play, I felt it was time to move on to new material, something completely different. But it in the end it became apparent to me that there was a need to deal with the other end of the story - the exodus and what was left behind." Vassa is, of course, referring to Operation Moses - the mid-1980s mass migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Some 9,000 Jews eventually ended up in this country, but only after an arduous trek through the desert and a lengthy stay in Sudanese refugee camps awaiting the final airlift to safety. Approximately 4,000 people died along the way, including Vassa's grandmother and two of his brothers. "There is so much unspoken in the Ethiopian community regarding what we went through, the price we paid to come to Israel. Many - in particular the older generation - refrain from talking about it because they find it too painful, the loss was so great. So in a sense, the play has been cathartic for our community. The elders come and see it and many times, even though they don't fully understand the language, they shed tears. It's a conversation with people, not just entertainment." On a personal level, says Vassa, it also allows him to process some of the trauma he faced as a Jew living in Ethiopia. "The memories are still quite sharp," says the actor. "Confined to living in a separate part of the village and going out and being called names like 'Budda' - the term given to someone who influences people in the same manner that a devil would; and you had to apologize even though you knew it was nonsense." Howard Rypp, founder of Nephesh Theater, the production company behind the play, echoes a similar sentiment. "It shows the whole sacrifice the Ethiopians made in coming to Israel. There is much that is unique about it, although at the same time it's a very typical Israeli story in that it explores social conflict, sacrifice and cultural difference. For us, as a theater company, it's in a sense familiar territory. We set out to explore both Jewish themes and social issues, examining different groups within our society - Jews, Arabs, religious, secular, immigrants - the multicultural milieu that exists here and the conflict and complexities that arise as a result." Rypp speaks from experience. The Canadian-born producer has being doing this kind of production for more than 20 years. "I started the theater company in Toronto in 1978 straight out of university. I wanted to do a Holocaust-themed play, about Janusz Korczak the great Polish educator. At the time it was a subject too obscure to interest any mainstream theater group. So Nephesh really began in order to stage that production and in the process became the first Canadian Jewish theater group." Nephesh continued for a time in Toronto, but, like Moses and the Vassa family, eventually found the lure of the Holy Land too strong to resist - but for very different reasons. "This is the natural home for a theater group that wants to do Jewish and Israeli plays - plays that deal with our history. Also, there are so many conflicts here that you can explore - and conflict is the greatest source of material for drama. Canada wasn't so rich in that sense." THE IRONY IS that Rypp has begun exporting this culture - grounded in local social conflict - back to North America, to Europe and even South America. All in all, Nephesh has a repertoire of eight shows that have been translated into English and travel abroad. This includes It Sounds Better in Amharic, Vassa's one-man show which has been performed more than 150 times internationally. At the beginning of May, the English adaptation of One of a Kind - AndArgay will tour North America. The circuit includes the prestigious San Francisco International Arts Festival and a two-week stint at Broadway's famed Victory Theater. For both Vassa and Rypp, the appeal of the play is universal: Neither doubts that North American audiences will find much to identify with above and beyond the obvious attraction of a fascinating modern-day Pessah tale. "I believe the Diaspora is hungry to see plays about what is going on in Israel and about Jewish continuity and Jewish heroes," says Rypp. "The idea of sharing the culture and building the bridges between Israel and the Diaspora is important. We have a bond that we always want to emphasize and explore and connect and strengthen - and I think theater, more than a lecture or anything else is a way to do that because it speaks to the emotion and not just to the rationale." Rypp also sees the appeal for a wider audience. "We believe the play will also speak to the black community in North America, because it's also a story of a people coming en masse to a place where they are a minority. It deals with the wish for freedom and the struggle to achieve that freedom while at the same time trying to hold on to your roots, your religion and your identity." Beyond that, he also sees the production as something with appeal for the family. "Not only is there someone there for everyone to relate to - a grandmother, a parent, a child - but it's also about family unity. Witnessing how this Ethiopian family travels and faces extreme hardships together, the strength and the love that they give to one another, is an inspiring, moving experience." In Vassa's eyes, the aspect of uprooting and relocating makes it a very modern tale that speaks to people regardless of ethnicity. "So much of this century and the one before have been about people moving. Immigrants all face the same questions, the same issues," he says. "In a sense, even the collaboration behind the production provides some sort of metaphor for this. In addition to myself and Howard, who come from opposite ends of the world, the whole creative team hails from 'some other place.' The director - Shai Ben-Attar - is the son of Iraqi immigrants, the choreographer is Ghanaian and the set designer, Sasha Lasansky, originally from Russia. All these people have been living here a long time and their way of thinking is unique - this mesh of multinational creative talents obviously results in something that speaks beyond borders." The seven actors who make up the cast were assembled especially for the production, and in the process have become the most acclaimed Ethiopian ensemble in the country. Says Rypp: "We wanted the group to not only be highly accomplished, but also authentic. So we scoured the country for the finest Ethiopian Israeli actors. Every member of the troupe, bar one, was born in Ethiopia and came to Israel as part of the mass migration. So in a sense, it has become a group story." The actors have worked tirelessly in preparation for the upcoming tour. Two dialogue coaches have spent some eight months helping the group perfect the performance, in some cases with actors who had virtually no experience of the language. According to one of the trainers, Linda Lovitz, it's a difficult skill to master. "It's really about changing your mouth and the way that you use the muscles. This, on top of the fact that you also have to find the right inflection to express emotion and feeling." The musical numbers have also been upgraded; a prerecorded track has been replaced by live singing. Says Rypp: "It's really in line with what a North American audience expects. They want a live show all the way." Both professionals agree that the hard work has paid off and the group is more than ready for the English-speaking world. Toward the end of the play there is yet another echo of the Pessah story. In the Bible Moses speaks to the tribes of Israel before they leave him behind and embark on their final crossing into Canaan. In One of a Kind - AndArgay Vassa's character receives some parting words of wisdom from an elder, who like Moses, is destined not to make the final leg of the journey: "AndArgay, don't look back, only forward. It's my dream that you reach Jerusalem." It's advice that Vassa has obviously taken to heart. First by reaching Israel, and again some 20 years later as he sets out for the Promised Land of the actor: Broadway. But this time, he and his fellow thespians can rest their feet while the plane does the hard work.