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Arab-Jewish Theatre inspires St. Louis producer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2012 - As a theatrical producer for many years, Kathleen Sitzer has seen her share of tough audiences.

But as Sitzer can attest, St. Louis, where she oversees the New Jewish Theater, and Tel-Aviv, where Igal Ezraty and Natalie Hissian oversee productions at the Jaffa Theatre, have tough audiences of a different sort.

Hissian, who is an Arab Israeli Muslim, and Ezraty, who is an Israeli Jew, produce plays aimed at a mixed audience of Arabs and Jews. They are productions that take on the conventional wisdom, challenge assumptions and attack stereotypes in Israeli society. The moderated conversations that take place after the productions are frequently as dramatic as the plays themselves, Ezraty says.

It was Sitzer who initiated a visit to the theater this summer with a group from Central Reform Congregation. The CRC members, many of whom had been to Israel just once or twice or not at all, had spent a great deal of time touring at the most commonly visited sites. But they also hungered to learn about everyday life – especially at the crossroads where Arabs and Jews interact. The Jaffa Theatre, located in a 400-year-old building in old Jaffa, a mostly Arab neighborhood, provided that opportunity.

There are two troupes at the Jaffa Theatre that operate independently at times and together at others. They call their partnership the Arab-Hebrew Theatre. It was created in 1998 by bringing together El-Serayah Theater, then a new Arab troupe, and The Local Theatre, a Jewish troupe that formed in the early 1990s. When they perform under the banner of the Arab-Hebrew Theatre, they use both Arab and Jewish artists.

Hissian and Ezraty are different in more ways than their faith and upbringing. Hissian is not long out of college. Ezraty is a senior statesman in the arts. He is fatherly, admiring and respectful toward Hissian, who told the visitors that her life in many ways has provided its own drama. Her family is Muslim with one of her brothers quite devout, and another brother having married a Jew. She says she is the first woman to be put in charge of an Arab troupe as its administrative manager.

Hissian recalled for the CRC visitors seeing her first production several years ago at the Jaffa Theater, “Winter at Qalandia,” and how it captivated her. It tells the tale of everyday life at a checkpoint for Palestinians where security concerns can conflict with basic human respect and dignity. The encounters between the Palestinians and the Israeli guards are by turns ironic, tense and humorous. Both the guards and the Palestinians can be seen as victims of circumstances far beyond their control.

Afterward, Hissian thought not only about the production, but where it took place and its audience of Arabs and Jews. Hissian said she studied law and behavioral studies before the theater took her away. “I didn’t finish my degree and now I know why,” she said. “I love this place. I believe in this idea and we should do everything we can to keep it alive.”

While the collaboration has seen many successes, the environment is challenging. Both Arab and Jewish actors face criticism and outright ostracism for crossing cultural boundaries. Because the Israeli government funds the El-Serayah troupe, it is a pariah in the eyes of some Arabs. Mounting productions that challenge Israeli policy can lead to cuts in that funding, Ezraty and Hissian say. For instance, they said mention of Al Nabka, the events surrounding the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948, is considered out of bounds.

Ezraty notes that the two troupes produce what they like on their own. When it is a joint production, everyone has to be in agreement. Language is an issue. Most Israeli Arabs can understand and speak Hebrew. Most Jewish Israelis cannot speak or understand Arabic. In fact, many regard it as “the language of the enemy.” Even so, some productions are staged in Arabic with translation provided.

Ezraty says its gratifying when Jews tell him that they “didn’t know Arabic was such a beautiful, musical language.” That, he said, “is what theater can suggest.”

Sitzer said she was impressed with the unity the two troupes have shown toward one another. “There seems to be no sense of competition at all but a unified desire to education and promote multiculturalism on both sides,” she said.

In St. Louis, Sitzer said she does not face the same challenges in terms of the tension that exists outside her theater in the way that it does in Israel. But she does encounter many who simply do not want to think about difficult topics.

“With a significant portion of my audience on the older side, many of my patrons want to be entertained. They do not want to be challenged – by any topic,” she said. “I have to walk a very narrow line between entertainment, enrichment and education.”

With that said, Sitzer said she is interested in learning more about the Jaffa Theatre and perhaps producing some of their scripts here “so that our audiences might have some idea of what Israelis and Arabs are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”

“The Jaffa Theatre has a very defined target audience and mission,” Sitzer said. “Ours is a bit broader, but we both are niche theaters in our own particular theater worlds, reaching out to a specific group of people, telling their stories and reflecting their experiences on stage. We are both using theater as a mirror for self-evaluation and as a window to see what’s on the other side.”

This article also appeared in the Jewish Light. Richard H. Weiss is a contributing editor for the St. Louis Beacon, managing editor of the website BeyondNovember.org, and a board member of the Jewish Light.

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