What do you think of Israel One-man play offers perspectives

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Aaron Davidman is of two minds. Actually, 12 minds.

In his one-man play “Wrestling Jerusalem,” the actor-playwright portrays a dozen characters, each a composite of Arabs and Jews he has met in the Holy Land over the course of some 20 trips. Davidman hopes that through these characters, audiences will take in diverse perspectives they don’t always encounter, or like.

Aaron Davidman

“Wrestling Jerusalem” began its world premiere three-week run this week at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, where Davidman serves as artist-in-residence.

It’s a premiere but the play is not new. Davidman has been writing, rewriting and workshopping it since 2007, when he received a commission from Theater J. in Washington, D.C.

Over time, the play evolved into something of a personal journey, starring Davidman as an American progressive Jew struggling with his relationship to Israel.

“I wrote the play in a way to answer the question: What do you think of Israel?” he says. “You can’t answer in soundbyte, and brevity leads to polemic. You need to take time.”

In this case, it requires 90 minutes of stage time.

Drawing on heartfelt, often poetic language, Davidman speaks of his Jewish upbringing, his early trips to Israel, when he fell in love with the country, and later trips, when he couldn’t help perceiving contradictions and painful political fault lines.

His characters include a right-wing settler passionate about Zionism, a Palestinian village woman whose son was killed by an Israeli soldier, Jewish human rights workers and an Israeli pothead weary of war.

Though he shows sympathy to most of his characters, one comes under fire: a Jewish anti-Zionist medical student living with an Arab family in Hebron and fully supportive of Hamas.

In that scene, the character of Aaron pushes back with uncharacteristic fury. Otherwise, he’s a good listener. “To show the humanity of people you might not agree with is the point,” he says. “We’re not stereotypes. We’re not cutouts.”

Davidman deliberately peppers the play with religious allusions, from the kabbalistic view of a shattered world to the evocative melodies of the cantor. He knows he cannot get away from his Jewish soul, but perhaps by listening deeply to others, even those who have no love for Israel, he’s doing a mitzvah.

“I feel [the play] loops me back to the Shema and embraces that,” he says, referring to the central Jewish prayer that begins with the words “Hear, O Israel.”

“That deep listening, the yearning to learn and to know, is what drives my sense of character forward,” he adds. “And as I drop into each perspective, this is maybe the highest sense of the gift I hope I’m giving: modeling what it means to try to see from somebody else’s perspective.”

The play ends with a plea for peace, but couched in a way Davidman gambles no one has heard before. It’s simple and powerful, and makes for great theater.

Davidman is a familiar figure to Bay Area theatergoers. For years he was the artistic director of the Jewish Theatre (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre), which closed its doors nearly three years ago. There he wrote, directed and starred in numerous plays. He also has worked with California Shakespeare Theater, Theatreworks, the Shotgun Players and Theatre J.

In addition to the performances, Davidman has teamed up with the New Israel Fund and Intersection of the Arts to participate in Peace Café, a series of post-show discussions following the 2 p.m. Sunday matinees of “Wrestling Jerusalem.”

Those conversations, he hopes, will contribute something — however small — to the civil dialogue needed to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

“I’m not saying my play is going to heal the Middle East conflict,” he says. “But I hope it speaks to people’s need to understand complexity. We have to be able to hold it all.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” runs through April 6 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F. www.theintersection.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.