Children’s theater in Jaffa hosts sixth annual festival for Hebrew, Arabic speakers

Elmina was founded by celebrated actor and director Norman Issa, and his actress-playwright wife, Gidona Raz Issa, in 2012.

 THE SHOW ‘Arnavim.’ (photo credit: Gil Lupo)
THE SHOW ‘Arnavim.’
(photo credit: Gil Lupo)

If we truly want to make the world a better place for the generations to follow, we need to get our educational act together. After all, rightfully, we older folks should move onto celestial pastures long before the youngsters of today, leaving the adults of tomorrow to deal with the current dire ecological straits.

That forms part of the thinking behind the sixth annual Elmina Children’s Festival due to take place under the auspices of the Elmina Theater in Jaffa December 9-11. Over the three days, kids aged 3-12, in all likelihood along with siblings, parents and grandparents, can enjoy a wide-ranging program of performances, storytelling sessions, workshops and other fun stuff.

Elmina was founded by celebrated actor and director Norman Issa, and his actress-playwright wife, Gidona Raz Issa, in 2012, hence the festival marks the beginning of the company’s first-decade celebrations.

The Issas set out, from the start, to cater to the entertainment needs of Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking children and to provide them with quality theatrical fare that not only appeals to the eyes and ears, but also leaves them with something to mull over and, possibly, put into practice.

That is a recurrent theme across the junior consumer-oriented spread, which also includes some bilingual and text-free shows. The festival opens on December 9 at 5 p.m. with Arnavim (Hares), in Arabic and Hebrew, written and directed by Tom Wolinitz, with media personality Lucy Aharish as MC. 

 NORMAN ISSA and Gidona Raz Issa: As soon as you approach your work with so much emotion and respect... it makes it all so worthwhile. (credit: Yadid Levi) NORMAN ISSA and Gidona Raz Issa: As soon as you approach your work with so much emotion and respect... it makes it all so worthwhile. (credit: Yadid Levi)

The original script encompasses all sorts of wholesome subject matter and subtexts, from the meaning of true friendship to the beauty of diversity and appreciating “the other.”

But this is no gilded Hollywood tale of a perfect world, and the protagonists have to face up to their fair share of challenges, and tricky interpersonal dynamics. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to divine the sociopolitical inference here as, hopefully, the 4-8-year-olds for whom the work is tailored enjoy the onstage action and leave with some nutritional food for thought.

There are several premieres in the lineup, including the Arabic-language Tales of Ferdinand Pedahtzur. As the script was crafted by 75-year-old Ephraim Sidon, whose bulging bio features a wealth of satirical ventures, one may assume the text is liberally seasoned with humorous tongue-in-cheek asides. 

The storyline, complemented by a soundtrack by Or Matza, is somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain’s late 19th-century novel The Prince and The Pauper, and examines social mores and just how far you can stretch accepted wisdoms.

The Issas get in on the theatrical act themselves, with Wonder (Pelleh). The play, for the 7-12-year-old age group, is based on the eponymous bestselling novel by New Yorker writer Raquel Jaramillo Palacio, and highlights the challenging issue of social inclusion and acceptance of those who look and act differently from the norm. Raz Issa adapted the script, along with Sharon Borstein, and Norma Issa directs.

Raz Issa says the play has already proven a success. “When we put this on at Elmina, in the past, I couldn’t stop looking at the faces of the children in the audience,” she chirps. “They really lived the show. They were so moved and kept on clapping. It was such a powerful experience for me. I went home with the feeling that I am doing something meaningful and important.”

That has, in fact, been the case for the past decade. Raz Issa says she and her husband have been giving their all to the theatrical enterprise throughout. “I always say I have two sons and another one, Elmina,” she laughs. “It is so important to us.” 

Raz Issa says the biological parental role comes into play in their professional life too. “As soon as you approach your work with so much emotion and respect – like you bring up your own child – it makes it all so worthwhile. You get back everything you put into it.” Sounds like a good win-win deal for all concerned.

With the pandemic fallout still lingering, and the memory of being cooped up in our own four walls fresh, Raz Issa says the festival is just the ticket.

“We have all sorts of shows without words, circus-style. They are suitable for outside the theater, for schools and that sort of thing.” They are also tailored to alfresco, Health Ministry constraint-free, activity. “We come along with our cart, take out all the props and stuff and do our performance. You don’t need a Green Pass, and kids can enjoy being out in the open, free.”

The shared cultural consumer experience is also part of the Elmina benefits package. “We feel a sense of mission to our work,” Raz Issa continues. “We put a lot of love into it, and we get so much pleasure from seeing the kids sit together – Arabs and Jews – just enjoying a show together, in a simple nonjudgmental way. That is a normal and healthy life.”

That has been uppermost in the Elmina ethos since day one. “This is pioneering work,” says Raz Issa. “Pioneers came here and built the country, and this is also like making the desert bloom. You bring something else, something new. You bring the idea of theater, and exposure to creative arts through a meaningful experience, and you take one step further into the realms of vision.”

Raz Issa believes that approach, and the work they do at Elmina, are sowing the seeds for a more fertile and healthier substratum for a more harmonious way of living. “That nurtures a sense of closeness, and awareness of others, especially for children and youth. That is a critical stage of life, before they fully form their ideas and opinions.”

The Elmina way, says Raz Issa, is founded on the hope of disseminating an alternative message to the one the public gets from TV and the press. “The influence of the media, and all the different channels, is very powerful and is only growing. We want to convey some hope that we can live together, notwithstanding the negative contexts people get from the media.”

That applies doubly to the younger crowd, for whom the Elmina Theater caters. “It is so important to offer the positive side of life,” Raz Issa notes, “and there is much to feed off. The majority wants to live together, to bring up our kids and get to know each other. We don’t necessarily have to love each other, but we should respect one another. If we can get to that it would be amazing.”

While we’re at it we can also enjoy ourselves by, for example, popping along to the Elmina Theater, with our kids in tow, for some fun, a little enlightenment and some belly laughs in the process.

For tickets and more information: (03) 533-5444 and (050) 280-0300, https://www.elminajaffa.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/ElminaTheater