The little theater company that could

A minority theater in Israel brings a Nobel Prize winner's work to the Edinburgh Fringe.

ethiopian theater 88 298 (photo credit: )
ethiopian theater 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Netela Theater Company derives its name from an Ethiopian shawl that can be used for almost anything. "You can wrap a baby in it or you can protect yourself from the outside world with it," explains Yaffa Schuster, who founded the company in 1994 to give Ethiopian immigrants a creative outlet. And it seems that Netela is doing exactly what its name suggests-a lot with very little. On Friday, Netela flew to the world-renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which runs from August 5-27, to perform their adaptation of Nigerian Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel. "Yes, we are performing [in Edinburgh, Scotland], but with empty pockets. It's very scary," says Schuster frankly of the company's difficulties-half of the plane tickets were provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other half scraped together from what could be borrowed from friends and family. And yet, in spite of the financial difficulties plaguing her theater company, Schuster refuses to relent, insisting that Netela can play an important social role in Israeli society today. "As an immigrant kid from Africa, coming here with dark skin, you are forced to ask yourself: do I belong to the older culture of my parents? Do I belong to the African American culture? Do I belong to the reggae culture?" Schuster believes that through theater, she can tackle these questions, reach young people with a message of strength and reveal the unique diversity of the Israeli people. "We cast professional actors regardless of their skin color -be they Palestinian or Ethiopian - and it's a Jewish-Arab co-production. We thought, 'let's empower the voice of the minority through this production.'" And so with a small troupe that includes Ethiopian veteran actors, a Mexican performer brand new to Israel, an Arab producer and Schuster herself who is an Ashkenazi Jerusalem native, Netela is bringing the work of Soyinka to a country that largely is unaware of his work. "We are the people of the book. How is it possible that a Nobel Prize winner writing in English does not appear on any bookshelf here in Israel? Can it be a matter of racism? [Soyinka] is such a genius. Just open any page and you will have the [time] of your life." The Lion and the Jewel, one of Soyinka's first and most popular plays, features original music composed by Arkadi Duchin and boasts the creations of some of the best costume, lighting and set designers in the country, all of whom worked for little to no payment. "If you have a low budget, people think you aren't as good as those with a big budget. That's not true," insists Schuster. By late September, The Lion and the Jewel, which Netela has been working on for more than two years, will open in Israel. Schuster, who is in contact with Soyinka, says he has expressed interest in seeing it and has never been to Israel before. "The arts are all about action, about doing," says Schuster of Netela's uncertain future, hopeful that her work will be appreciated in Edinburgh and in Israel.