When people ask playwright and actor Aaron Davidman for a pat answer to what he “really thinks” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his response is usually along the lines of: “I spent 10 years crafting a 90-minute play about it. I can’t exactly take a stand in a few sentences.”
Back in 2007, the Berkeley, Calif., native was commissioned to write a play about the conflict by Ari Roth, the then-artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J, to be part of Roth’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival.
The result is Davidman’s one-man show Wrestling Jerusalem, which premiered in San Francisco in 2014 and makes its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre Nov 23.
The play, directed by Michael John Garces, is about Davidman’s own journey as an American Jew visiting Israel and the West Bank and speaking to figures spanning the demographic spectrum, from Jewish Israelis, Palestinians and others of Arab descent to Muslims, Christians, soldiers and farmers.
Davidman said the cast of 17 characters – he plays them all – includes a Palestinian field worker for the human rights organization B’Tselem, a Jewish American Zionist living in Israel, a British academic who speaks to certain aspects of anti-Semitism on the political left, and an Israeli commander.
In presenting a snapshot of the diverse perspectives found in the region from the vantage point of a Diaspora Jew or, as Davidman put it, “an outsider looking in,” he’s attempting to understand the complexities of a narrative that he said is “often told in black and white.”
The play’s content was inspired by the nearly 10 years Davidman spent travelling to Israel and the West Bank interviewing people across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum.
“The characters and narratives that emerged were the juiciest ones,” he said.
To generate discussion and give audiences the chance to reflect on what they’ve seen, each performance will be followed by an interfaith conversation led by Toronto representatives versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including clergy, journalists and scholars.
“I’m trying to bring communities that aren’t in Israel deep into the middle of this thing, where they can meet different people and try to understand where others are coming from,” Davidman explained.
He noted that past audiences in the United States, where Wrestling Jerusalem spent two years touring, have included people from Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds, as well as those without personal connection to the conflict.
“The public conversation about this tends to be very polemicized. It’s usually very much an ‘us versus them’ conversation, a ‘which side are you on?’ conversation. I think the truth is much more nuanced and layered. The ‘us versus them’ narrative doesn’t serve the creation of an eventual reconciliation and doesn’t serve… people understanding those different from themselves,” he said.
He stressed that the piece isn’t meant to be a political treatise or a protest play, but one that explores the human faces of those who “live within this struggle every day… as well as what it means for us as outsiders to wrestle with it.”
Davidman, who previously worked as artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, never went to Jewish day school, but said he “fell in love with Israel as a Jewish homeland” upon his first visit to the country in 1993, when he was 25.
“I spent six months living there and had a really incredible spiritual and Jewish identity-forming experience. That story is in the play,” he said.
It was when he started going back to Israel as a playwright that he became more interested in the politics of the region.
Though, Davidman clarified, “the term politics feels a little reductive… I got much more invested in the narratives of the people who live there and what the issues are.”
Wrestling Jerusalem runs until Nov. 27. Ticket info.