This Land Is Our Land

Aaron Davidman has been grappling with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a long time, and in fact he’s been working on his one-man show on the subject for a long time as well. The erstwhile artistic director of San Francisco’s late Traveling Jewish Theatre was scheduled to unveil Wrestling Jerusalem as part of TJT’s final season in 2012, but instead the show’s finally seeing the light of day two years later at Intersection for the Arts. Directed by Michael Jon Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’s Cornerstone Theater Company, the staging is intimate and intense, laced with skillful use of Middle Eastern and other music by sound designer Bruno Louchouarn.

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem. Photos by Ken Friedman.

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem. Photos by Ken Friedman.

Wrestling Jerusalem is specifically about Davidman’s own attempt to get his head around the conflict, going back to his first trip to Israel in 1992. In fact the narrative goes back farther back that that, to cutting classes at Berkeley High in 1985 to go to anti-Apartheid rallies at Sproul Plaza (pardon me, I mean Biko Plaza) and later hearing some disturbing rhetoric at a Free Palestine rally in the same spot. (On a side note, this means we were in high school together, which I’d never realized before.) He talks about grappling with his identity as an American Jew visiting the ancestral hub of the religion, and how the incredible resonance of that return and of communing with people of this heritage from all over the world are complicated by the constant awareness of the second-class citizenship and accompanying anger of the Palestinian people who were there before the modern Israeli state was formed.

Davidman’s travels in Israel kind of run together in this compelling 80-minute monologue, and the people he talks to are less distinct characters than bursts of different voices coming together into a fascinatingly discordant chorus. Davidman embodies each of the characters distinctly, with marvelous individuality, but he almost never introduces any of them, so we’re left to guess their age and even their gender from subtleties of voice and body language. Really what they are is positions, voicing different perspectives in the ongoing argument, so whoever the heck these people are, where they’re coming from is immediately apparent.

There’s the military commander who takes a philosophical view of all the Palestinian homes he had destroyed to coerce families into cooperation; if you see it as ongoing wartime, it’s a necessary evil, but if you see it as peacetime it’s abominable. There are those who see any criticism of Israel as playing into the hands of those who want only to wipe the Jews out, and there are those who see it as a civic duty that’s essential if the nation is to take itself seriously as a democratic society. He talks to religious conservative Jews, to secular intellectuals, and to Palestinians who want to be able to travel freely in their own land and not have to worry that their property will be taken away.  “The Holocaust is not my fault,” one of them says eloquently. “My grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer, here.”

It’s a dizzying barrage of information and perspectives that’s beautifully woven together. Because most of the time these voices are presented without name or context, however, it’s sometimes jarring to return to Aaron’s own journey in a particular place, meeting a particular person, though it’s always rewarding to have that moment of groundedness and personal perspective. One street scene where what he thinks is going on turns out to be very different from what’s actually happening is priceless and very revealing.

It’s sadly appropriate that the dramatic closing sequence in which Davidman attempts to really make sense of the conflict as a soluble thing is the shakiest part of the piece. After laying out the multifaceted complexity of the situation so eloquently and resonantly in the rest of the piece, any attempt to make it all seem simple in the end can’t help but ring false. But the journey to get to that point is so enthralling, impassioned and thought-provoking that it’s a trip well worth taking.

Wrestling Jerusalem
Through April 6
Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #26 of 2014, attended March 20.

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