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Critically acclaimed theater production to visit Grinnell

By Ahon Gooptu

“Wrestling Jerusalem” and “I Shall Not Hate” are being presented at Grinnell College this weekend as part of the Mosaic Theatre Company of D.C.’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival: The War Comes Home” tour.

The filmed version of “Wrestling Jerusalem” includes a multitude of characters presented by Aaron Davidman, a Jewish American performer. Meanwhile, “I Shall Not Hate” offers the singular story of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian Muslim and Gaza-based obstetrician.

“[Abuelaish’s] values are values that Mosaic finds admirable. … The realities of war, terror and continuing occupation are what have compromised the fulfillment of that vision identity,” said Ari Roth, founding artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company. “The realities of tragedy fell to his three daughters, who were the victims of a missile attack on Abuelaish’s home the day before the end of the Gaza War in 2009.”

The shows, initially commissioned by the Habima Theater, national theater of Israel, originated in Tel Aviv. However, the content includes material that is both heavy and controversial. Thus, it survived a mere 20-day run before it was shut down in Israel.

“The play is a very powerful message and it may have been too powerful for some conservative members of the government, who exerted pressure to quietly shut the play down. The Theater was only too happy to sell the original set of the play that we’re bringing to Grinnell,” Roth said.

In 2016, Mosaic Theater Company performed the second production and the American premiere production. The 24 performances by the Company captivated audiences in Washington, D.C. and were critically praised. 

“Now we’re bringing it around two years later to continue the life of the play and hoping to keep this alive for more years to come — hopefully bring it to New York in the [near] future,” Roth remarked.

“I Shall Not Hate,” the 75-minute one-person show directed by Shay Pitovsky, will be performed in Hebrew and Arabic. 

Every line that the performer speaks will be translated in English over his head on a projected surtitle.

“The performer, Gassan Abbas is one of the leading Palestinian actors in the world — a star of Israeli television, film and stage. He has lived in the conflicted drama of being a Palestinian Israeli all of his life, so in a profound way, he’s living out his life story. Therefore, it’s important for him to speak in his native languages of Arabic and Hebrew. I think it really adds to the performance and the American students really agreed as well,” Roth said.

Roth added that the audiences at the University of Oklahoma, the stop before Grinnell on the tour, found Abbas’ performance moving and engaging. The shows will travel to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia right after Grinnell, followed by the University of Chicago. At all the locations other than Grinnell, David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” is also a part of the festival.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often portrayed as being unique and exceptional, and in some ways it is, especially in terms of the trajectories of the Jewish people, as Rabbi Rob Cabelli said.

“A majority of the world’s population perhaps has a vested interest [in Jerusalem] because it is the ‘birth place’ of three religions of the world. And another peculiarity of it is its geopolitical relevance, in part because of oil. … But there is also a way in which it is like so many other conflicts in the world, which is the identity that people hold … people often have additional identities, a constellation of identities. … There is a tendency for a mutual polarization to take place, where people are compelled to make as stark as possible the choice between ‘are you this or are you that’ and ‘if you are this then that must be demonized,’” Cabelli said.

This is the first time that the College will have presented anything that directly addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in several years. Cabelli is hopeful that people will attend and that it will “provide a basis for conversation that’s not predicated upon an ‘either-or’ but upon the hearing of many voices and the need to not demonize but rather to try and understand the complexity.”

“We see it as a part of a mission, this tour. … After every performance, there will be post-production discussions and hopefully those will reflect a very diverse group of students and faculty. They will also include me [and] Gassan Abbas. … Part of the idea is to bring the Grinnell community together, to have a variety of impressions both about the film on Friday night and then the two performances of the very, very moving play on Saturday and Sunday,” Roth said.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9, in JRC 101. “I Shall Not Hate” will be performed live at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11 in Roberts Theatre.

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