Modern day morality

Beit Lessin playwright and director Hillel Mittelpunkt says it's all about Israeli society.

Hillel Mittelpunkt 88 29 (photo credit: )
Hillel Mittelpunkt 88 29
(photo credit: )
Choosing only an English language title for his new political drama, Goodbye Africa, was not an effort to be trendy, says playwright and director Hillel Mittelpunkt. Rather, it makes a statement about the Israeli mentality in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the play takes place. "The period [in the Sixties and Seventies] signaled the start of Israeli diplomacy as such. Everybody who studied English in Israel then, learned the basic vocabulary to get by abroad - phrases like "Hello," "Goodbye," and "How are you?" So to begin with, I chose the word "goodbye" because it connected me with our diplomatic innocence at the time. [Secondly, it referred to] our expulsion from Africa - Uganda was the first. "The word 'goodbye' also was connected to literature and the movies, especially the genre of murky romanticism, like Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely." Goodbye Africa is set in a Kampala five-star hotel room in 1994, an ironically conventional sitcom setting for the skewering of the "ugly Israeli." Four close friends have come back to Uganda because one of them, a physician, is about to receive a humanitarian award. They are joined by another friend, a businessman who was in the military when they all worked in Uganda during the years that Idi Amin came to power. Their vacation jollity quickly shatters when an urbane police inspector confiscates their passports because of an ongoing inquiry into a political murder perpetrated during the Amin years. At the end of the play, the four, their vacation and their moral pretensions are in tatters - with the exception of their so-very-good friend. Central to his thesis, Mittelpunkt says over institutional coffee in paper cups at Beit Lessin where he is in-house playwright and director, "is that we can't live moral lives if state policy is immoral. What I mean by 'moral lives' is that to a certain extent we are responsible for the decisions taken in our name, especially when these are morally questionable." Of course Goodbye Africa is an allegory, he admits, "because it's about Israeli society and not at all about Africa." The drama joins a long list of Mittelpunkt plays that have addressed our lives here, many of them about questions that will not go away, like Gorodish, a parable told through the story of Shmuel (Gorodish) Gonen, a hero of the '67 war who took the rap for the disastrous Yom Kippur war in 1973. Accident, a recent Beit Lessin production, is about a hit and run driver who kills a Chinese worker, and how the play's society works through that, "because the world really is a global village," Mittelpunkt says, inferring that we can no longer pretend that what we do here, only we can understand. He's also done other plays about people on the fringes of society, like Paradise South, a story of blighted hopes and lives in a dusty Negev development town, or those dealing with the Holocaust generations like the long-running A Tourist Guide to Warsaw. "As a playwright, with each play you test variations on the three or four themes that are important to you," he says. Humor, often unexpected and the more effective thereby, has always been a part of the work. Sometimes it's verbal, sometimes physical, because "humor is a wonderful weapon to get the audience on your side, and with it you can make a deadly serious point that starts out as a joke." MITTELPUNKT IS handsome, and looks younger than his 58 years. He grew up in Jaffa, in a former Arab house in a mixed neighborhood. His parents immigrated from Poland after World War II and were promptly interned in Cyprus until Israel became a state in 1948. His father and mother had both served in the Red Army during the war, and "the worst day I remember at home was the day Stalin died," he says, laughing. His grandfather, Yosef David Mittelpunkt, was a Yiddish author, so writing runs in the family. Hillel Mittelpunkt knew he wanted to be a playwright "from a very young age." His first play was The Entertainers, written at 15. His first professionally produced play was The Last Hope of Nahmani Street at the Haifa Theater in 1974 under the visionary Oded Kottler. Since then he has written more than 40 plays, carefully crafted, well made. "Yes, I'm very careful about structure," he agrees. "I like the play to hang together well, whether or not it's realistic [in the treatment of its subject matter]. Whatever the subject, however important it may be, it can never be an excuse to neglect the craft. And because I direct my own plays, my responsibility as a playwright is even greater." Ideas for plays "run around in my head all the time. Goodbye Africa went through many versions in there, including a sort of Israeli Tempest. Several ideas can occupy me at the same time. I contend that the play is already there, in my head. What I have to recognize is the moment that it knocks and says 'now it's my turn.'" 'Goodbye Africa' begins August 31 at Beit Lessin