Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Holy Ground – by Stephanie Liss

By Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D. and Joe Straw

The world premier of On Holy Ground by Stephanie Liss and directed by L. Flint Esquerra, playing at the Met in Hollywood, presents two one-act plays. The first play is Daughter of My People and the second is Jihad.

Jihad tells two stories of two mothers—one Jewish, Shula, and the other Palestinian Reim, both living in Efrat. Both women have soon-to-be 16-year-old daughters.

One part of the play is about Shula and how she came to be in Israel and her life there. We learn that she was born in the United States and that she and her husband come to Israel to help settle this Promised Land. They have 5 children who grow up healthy, going to school, playing sports, and planning to visits the U.S. The family is full of hope in this land of opportunity. Every tidbit that Shula shares about her family is full of love and caring.

But like many Jewish mothers, Shula worries. She worries that the political violence will harm her children and she tries to protect them as much as possible. Still she relishes the promise of her daughter, Shoshanna’s, shift from adolescence to adulthood; although adulthood holds the scary thought of serving in the Israeli army.

By contrast we learn little about Reim. She mentions her husband only a couple of times and we do not know how they meet or if they love each other or whether their families approve of their marriage. What we do learn is that Reim, and her children in turn, are angry and bitter about the occupation. They move between checkpoints, have little opportunity, and are hopeless. In that context, and in that mind frame, Reim believes violence is a viable option. To her, strapping a bomb around one waist’s and blowing up a bus or restaurant seems reasonable. At least two of Reim’s children have become martyrs and her daughter, Wafa, will soon do the same.

On the surface, this appears to be an even-handed portrayal of two mothers, living near each other, in parallel lives, both fearing for their children’s present and future. But that is where the parallels end. Because we know so much about Shula and why she is there and what brought her to this point, and because she is so calm and reasonable, she is sympathetic. Whether it was the playwright or director’s intent, we are drawn to like Shula and to feel her pain.

But Reim is not sympathetically portrayed. She is angry, she does not smile, she appears delusional, and she repeats her rants. After all, mothers are not suppose to praise their children to having killed themselves and others or to desire that their surviving child do the same. How can we sympathize with such a mother—it is not possible.

So presenting two women, side-by-side, in such disparaging ways is unfair. It is unfair to be pulled toward compassion for one and shock for the other. No, that is not a fair comparison. A fair portrayal would have liking both or disliking both or maybe even hating both. That would be even-handed, that would be equal.

Stephanie Liss, the writer, is Jewish so it is easy to assume that was her intent. But in her bio in the programs states “she has gone underground with PLO and Hamas.” We suspect that she wanted to present both sides equally but it was not evident in the final production.

It would have been better to make this either a Jewish story or Palestinian story, rather than to interweave the two. As a Jewish story, we would have felt compassion for Shula but not at the expense of Reim. Shula’s story would not seemed so overly positive when not presented against Reim’s.

As a Palestinian story, we could have felt a connection to Reim’s anger and despair. This would have allowed us to learn more of Reim’s history. Was her family displaced from their home in the founding of Israel? Was her father or brothers killed? Did she witness these deaths? There is so much more we need to know about Reim. Not because we need to necessarily feel compassion but because we need to understand.

Lisa Richards was a very sympathetic Shula.  Her performance was exquisite and very specific in the fine details of her craft.  In the end, she goes after her answer only to discover a truth that shakes her to her core.  This was just a remarkable ending.

Abbe Rowlins as Reim was not the sympathetic character.  She lives a hopeless life and is unable to find help under any circumstance.  Her life is bleak, and she is weathered by the tragedies around her.  Still, she breathes life into a character—it is a very physical performance. Unfortunately we have yet come to understand her and we hope that one day all will be made clear.  

Jihad was presented with Daughter of My People. This is the story of Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi born in 1860 in the United States. She does not win her true love and instead travels to Palestine. She is so horrified by the conditions that Jews face there that she devotes her life to establishing social services to help Jews in Palestine.

There is no question that Henrietta Szold was amazing person in her lifetime. She is instrumental in establishing Hadassah, in saving many Jewish children to get out of Nazi Europe and to Palestine, and in laying the foundation of what would become the state of Israel. Yet she did not live to see Israel officially established since she passed away in 1945.

Szold could also be considered a feminist, even if she did not use that label for herself. Because she had not brothers, her father taught her much of what he would have taught a son. And she defended her right to carry on Jewish traditions that were usually done by men in order to maintain the family’s Jewish links across generations.

Salome Jens captured Henrietta Szold in amazing details.  Her voice, rapture, her eyes, expressive.  Jens is a remarkable actress who pays attention to the fine details of her craft.  We are caught in her extraordinary private moment, almost to private to reveal.  But reveal she must if we are to remember her lessons of the past.  As the character she hangs onto a pristine letter that is a significant turning point in her life.  It is in a book of memories pressed between the pages of a momentous life.  On this day she takes the envelope and laments over a lost love but in the end realizes it made all the difference.

L. Flint Esquerra did a very nice job directing in this small intimate setting but one might rehearse the curtain call, as there was some confusion, which left off Rowlins out of the final curtain call (of all things).

Presenting two compassionate stories about two different Jewish women further prejudices Reim’s story. Not only is Reim presented in a darker light than Shula, her Jewish contemporary, she certainly cannot compete with the historical stature of Szold. At some point, we want to hear Reim’s story in full, the happy and the angry, the past and the present, the desire and the despair. Maybe we will.

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