Bringing Broadway's 'Bridges' to Haifa

Award-winning actress Sarah Jones speaks to Arab-Israelis about breaching oppressive social barriers through performance art.

Tony Award-winning playwright and actress Sarah Jones recently visited Jaffa, performing selections from her Broadway hit Bridge and Tunnel in the Arab-Hebrew Theater. Jones also met with various cultural organizations in Israel to run writing and acting workshops and to exchange ideas about the role of performance art in public discourse. Jones was excited to be in Israel, declaring that this would be the first of several trips. "It's interesting to engage with other writers - including female writers and writers of mixed cultural backgrounds who happen to have an Israeli perspective instead of an American perspective," Jones told Metro. "It's an opportunity for interesting theatrical work." One of the organizations Jones met with is the Alo Foq Association, a Haifa-based Arab-Israeli cultural group dedicated to helping children who can't afford to attend school, or who require special attention in their studies. The association, whose membership comprises Arab-Israeli writers, academics, actors and artists, also organizes camps for children, some of which include arts workshops taught by internationally-renowned figures. Jones's Bridge and Tunnel is a one-woman performance, originally produced off-Broadway by Meryl Streep. She plays a diverse array of characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Of doing a one-woman show, Jones says: "It's very challenging to walk into a room or stage and have to fill that room." Yet Jones is up to the challenge: The moment she entered the meeting room of the Alo Foq Association, Jones was already bantering with the group members as if they were all old friends. She opened the meeting with a brief performance of several Bridge and Tunnel characters. The first was that of a homeless African American woman on the streets of New York - inspired, as are all of Jones's characters, by a person she has encountered. The moment she began acting, Jones's posture changed dramatically. Even her facial features seemed to take a new shape as she transported a quintessentially New York character into the heart of Haifa. The most marked change was in her voice, which dropped several octaves and took on new inflections. When she was done, Jones quipped that the woman she was playing didn't know yet that she would be needing a travel visa. The next character, for which Jones donned a large pair of glasses and bowed her shoulders, would have particular resonance for an Israeli audience. Jones was playing an elderly Jewish woman who in her youth, Jones explained, had faced anti-Semitism and survived the Holocaust. This character holds a personal significance for Jones: She is based on Jones's own great-aunt, who was Jewish. While the majority of Jones's relatives are African American, Caribbean and Irish, she has distant Jewish roots that give her a familiarity with the culture. "I grew up going to the seder with Jewish relatives," recalls Jones, whose multicultural background imbues her with an ability to transcend cultural barriers by performing characters from cultures all over the world. At one point during the meeting in Haifa, Jones began to perform the character of a little girl from Kenya, as a way of demonstrating that some political messages are more palatable when they come from children. Jones says that she uses characters of children when she is addressing controversial topics, because "our minds are open to a child," she says. "Their innocence, the beauty of their spirit, moves us." Israel's diverse culture is of particular interest to Jones, who has recently been immersing herself in films from and about Israel. She remarks that she was especially moved by the documentary To Die in Jerusalem, which examines a 2002 suicide bombing attack in the city in which both the bomber and victim were teenage girls. Jones calls the film "a poignant, artistic way to frame heartbreaking, tragic issues, and I think that's our job as artists. I was really impressed by [the director's] ability to give voice to something so ineffable." Some travelers come prepared with tour books, but to prepare for her trip to Israel, Jones went the extra mile. "I'm learning bits of Hebrew, enough to say the basics," says Jones. "I hope I will have more time to learn enough so that when I hear poetry, I can appreciate some of the nuances a little bit better." Jones's short performance inspired a discussion about art - and also inspired playwright and actor Afif Shlewet to perform a piece of his own. Shlewet is the manager of the Alo Foq Association, and has also written several plays. At the meeting, he got up and performed a scene from his play, Confessions of a Political Prostitute. The scene was entirely in Arabic, yet afterwards Jones commented that she felt she could understand it, because Shlewet's acting was so expressive. Discussing Arab theater, Shlewet remarks, "In Arab society, we're afraid to speak about many subjects, such as religion and sex." Shlewet addresses issues of Arab leadership in his plays, which he says has made them controversial. Actress and writer Rawda Suleiman commented that she herself writes about sexuality in her plays, but within limits, in order to portray the realities of marriage. In her work, she struggles with the proverb that was taught to her: "A good girl suffers in silence." Such problems of political and gender oppression are a major incentive for Jones's work, which she views as a potential tool for change. She recently participated in a conference in Ethiopia about punishing children, and used her performances to express ideas which might have been less acceptable had she delivered them in a lecture. She says, "Wherever we see that there are challenges not being addressed, art can be useful."