North African women yearn for home, identity in Turtles

When playwright Roland David Valayre decided to write about Jewish communities from North Africa, he knew where to turn for inspiration: his mother’s life. A Berber Jew from the mountains of Tunisia, she is “part of an old Jewish culture with a rich and picturesque past.”

“Sea Turtles” is a fictionalized account based on the experiences of Esther Scemama Valayre, her two sisters and their mother. “The four of them immigrated from Tunis to Paris in 1938, at the worst possible time,” the playwright said. “They avoided deportation by escaping occupied Paris and returning to Tunisia with passports bearing Arab names — passports forged for them by the Tunisian consulate.”

Roland David Valayre

Valayre, 62, speaking to the title’s meaning, noted that sea turtles always return to the beach where they were hatched, swimming for years to find their birthplace. “This play is about movement back and forth,” he said. “The women in my family have always had a soft spot for Tunis and Tunisia, and I’ve always heard their stories, stories about the smell of orange blossoms and about the beaches they had lost.”

The play, which opens Friday, Nov. 2 at the Southside Theater at Fort Mason Center after premiering last year at San Francisco’s Exit Theatre, features seven women portraying the four characters, interpreting them at different ages in Tunis, in Paris, on a beach, in a garret, on a train and on the road.

“Sea Turtles” addresses the wanderings of the women, “both through time and space and through their own feelings,” Valayre said. He noted that the play is a comedy.  “People who see it laugh quite a bit. Our family is like that, using laughter as a way of coping with problems. Of course, that’s not rare in the Jewish community or the culture.”

Valayre’s relatives left Tunisia initially to look for work in Paris. “In Tunis, there were two groups of Jews: the richer families in the French quarter, and the poorer families in the Jewish ghetto, a place with cholera — and that is where my family lived,” he said. “When they arrived in Paris, they started a needlepoint business, doing embroidery work and making lace for tailors. The four of them lived together in a garret.”

When the Vichy government started passing anti-Jewish laws in 1942, the matriarch — Valayre’s maternal grandmother — decided it was time to return to Tunis. His mother managed to secure the forged documents so the four could travel. They stayed in Tunis until the end of the war. In 1945, the women returned to their apartment in Paris. “It had been ransacked, but they were safe then,” Valayre said.

“Sea Turtles” is presented by GenerationTheatre, which Valayre founded in 2008. He also has taught theater at the French American International High School in San Francisco for five years.

The son of two actors, Valayre was born in Paris, where his father, Henry, worked as a stage manager. “I was always at the theater, with actors as my baby-sitters,” he said. “When Jeanne Moreau was playing in ‘Pygmalion,’ she would hide me under the seat of an old taxi that came out onstage. When she got into the taxi as Eliza Doolittle, she would pat me on the head.”

Valayre’s first job was as a screenwriter for French television and films. “When I became frustrated with the environment, I went back to university,” he said. In 1988 Valayre moved to the U.S. and enrolled in law school. A job offer brought him to the Bay Area from New York in 1991. Valayre practiced law in San Francisco until 2004, when he returned to the world of theater.

Valayre’s father died in 2007, but his mother is thriving. “She is 91, in perfect shape, and lives in Paris,” Valayre said. “Last summer she called me on Skype from a sailboat in the Mediter-ranean to ask how to send a video of the crew up in the mast.”

“Sea Turtles”
opens Friday, Nov. 2 and runs for two weekends at the Southside Theater at Fort Mason Center, S.F. For a trailer of the 2011 production, see