Cross-Cultural (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. An Ethiopian Jewish troupe takes root in the Israeli theatrical landscape "The rulers shall ride cars, not horses. We'll burn the forest, cut the trees. We'll print newspapers every day. With pictures of seductive girls, the world will judge our progress by the girls that win beauty contests. … Who here can throw a cocktail party? We must reject the palm wine habit and take to tea, with milk and sugar." On a bare stage, with only a door to indicate a school and a tree to mark the village center, Lakunle, a foppish schoolteacher, is trying to bring "civilization" to a Nigerian village in a scene from the Netela Theater's production of "The Lion and the Jewel," a play written by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and performed for Israel's diplomatic community at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. Named for the distinctive, multipurpose shawl-like scarf that Ethiopians wind around their necks and shoulders, Netela Theater, a Jerusalem-based repertory troupe, founded by immigrants from Ethiopia in 1994, has a two-fold purpose: to give African actors an opportunity to portray characters with whom they have an ethnic bond and to showcase African plays whose themes resonate in Israeli society. Although originally composed solely of Ethiopians, today Netela Theater is made up of both Ethiopians and whites, both Jews and Palestinians, yet still refers to itself as "Ethiopian theater." Explains Director Eitan Salem, 35, who came to Israel from Ethiopia at age 9, "We do not mean to be exclusive and we have no intention of distinguishing between actors from different black countries." He notes that in Israel, "Ethiopian" could refer to both race and nationality, yet because of racism, some white Israelis have difficulty acknowledging Ethiopians are Jewish. "People forget we are Jewish because of our color," he says wearily, as if he were personally hoisting the banner of egalitarianism and the fight against racism. "The Lion and the Jewel" is Netela's sixth production. The group was originally composed of Ethiopian immigrants from Upper Nazareth in Israel's north. Their debut performance was "Black Netela," a play about the dangerous trek through the Sudan on their way to Israel, and the difficulties of integration and acculturation in Israeli society. It was filled with folkloristic elements including distinctive shoulder-dancing and dramatic use of the Netela. "Black Netela" was chosen to represent Israel at the Budapest International Theater Festival in 1996. In 1999-2002, the troupe performed "Bavel," a play in Hebrew, Amharic, English and Swedish, which also employed traditional Ethiopian music and was performed at the La MaMa theater in New York to critical acclaim. "Stone Shoes" and "A Winter Tale," both performances that focused on personal experiences of new Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, followed. In 2003, Netela broke away from its folklore-like explorations of the immigrant experience with its production of "Blacks," a provocative presentation of racism by anti-Zionist French playwright, Jean Genet. The production was controversial, especially among Ethiopians, because Genet draws parallels between the black Ethiopian and native Palestinian experiences in Israel. And the group was experiencing other upheavals, as well. Concommitant with their increasingly political expression, the actors and supporters of the group demanded greater Ethiopian control over the decision-making process. They ousted Schuster (who is presently in her second incarnation with the group, this time as artistic director and the director of "Lion"). She was, she says, viewed at the time as "the oppressor," because she is white. She was reinstated eighteen months later, after the actors realized, says Salem, "that a non-Ethiopian could handle the troupe." Until 2002, Netela was funded by grants, the largest of which was provided by the Education Ministry. But in 2002, the ministry audited the troop's finances; although no illegalities were found, the ministry withdrew its funding and, since then, the company has continued to struggle financially. Former ambassador to Angola Tamar Golan has made an undisclosed sum of money available from "Funds for Co-Existence," a private fund supported by French philanthropist Eric de Rothschild, which has also helped to establish an African Studies Department at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "The reason we were so attracted to the play is that the director was working on amassing a multicultural cast with Arabs, Ethiopian and Ashkenazi Jews. We were convinced that this was helpful in promoting African culture in Israel," Golan tells The Report. Netela has also accepted in-kind help from the Israel Committee Against House Demoliton (ICAHD), a far-left political group, which allows the theater to use one of its properties for rehearsals, at no cost. Says Jeff Halper, head of ICAHD, "the committee wishes to promote grass-roots theater and makes its outreach center in Jerusalem a space available for progressive elements of civil society." Noting that the troupe is often in financial difficulty and sometimes cannot even pay the salaries of the professional actors and staff on time, Schuster says, '"We are doubtless going through a difficult time financially, but we will not disappear. In bright moments, I think of Netela Theater in the same breath as [Israel's national theater] Habima and New York's Yiddish theaters. Like them, we want to enrich the Jewish theatrical experience." Netela is composed of both professional and amateur actors. Titina Zebede-Assefa, 40, who came to Israel from Ethiopia at age 20 and now lives in Tel Aviv, is a polished actress, having spent eight years with the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. She presently has a one-woman show on domestic violence in the Ethiopian community, "Monologue of a Woman," which she presents at seminars for social welfare, education and health professionals who work with the community, and is involved in "Andarge" (Amharic for "The Chosen One"), a children's play about immigration, which will run in New York's New Victory Theater in April and May. In 2005, "Andarge" won the Haifa Children's Festival prize. Salwa Nakkara, 47, a Palestinian-Israeli living in Haifa, is also a professional actor. Presently she has her own play, "Cappuccino in Ramallah," based on the satirical war journal by Palestinian feminist Souad Amiry, "My Mother-in-Law and Sharon," which describes her experiences when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.