There’s a long and poignant story behind the T-shirt that Ari’el Stachel often wears these days. It says, in Hebrew, Totzeret Teman (product of Yemen). The unexpected juxtaposition of two cultures, Israeli and Arab, is as fascinating and complex as Stachel himself.
Stachel, 26, is an actor, singer and Berkeley native making his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” a charming musical starring Tony Shalhoub (star of the TV show “Monk”) and rising star Katrina Lenk. The show opened Nov. 9 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York and has been a big hit, bolstered by great reviews and strong word of mouth.
The play is based on the 2007 award-winning Israeli movie about an Egyptian police band stranded in a tiny Israeli village in the Negev Desert.
Stachel plays Haled, an Egyptian trumpeter who, like his fellow bandmates, quietly connects with his Jewish hosts during a long night of eating, flirting, roller skating at a disco and, of course, music making.
The show’s theme of how Arabs and Jews come to terms with each other is perhaps not nearly as dramatic as Stachel’s own journey of coming to terms with himself.
Stachel attended preschool at Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and went to Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito for a few years, and his resume includes the phrase “fluent in Hebrew.”
But he said he spent nearly a third of his life telling people he was half African American.
The facts are this: Stachel’s father is a man of Yemeni Jewish heritage who was born in Israel and his mother is an Ashkenazi Jew from New York.
“My father’s parents came to Israel in the 1950s,” he explained, “and my dad was born in an immigrant absorption tent city near the town of Hadera. When he was 24, he followed a woman he’d met on a kibbutz to the U.S. and ended up in California, where he met my mom while they were Israeli folk dancing. He was the only one in his family to leave Israel.”
Stachel’s parents divorced when he was young, and he opted to use the last name of his mother, Laura Stachel. “It was just one of the many ways I avoided my identity,” he said ruefully.
Though his mother said Ari’el “grew up with the rhythm of the Jewish calendar,” he began to feel a bit like an outsider while at Tehiyah, he said.
“In third grade, someone told me I was too black to be Jewish,” he recalled. “In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, with maybe nine students of color there out of 900. I started to see that I was perceived as black, so I re-created my identity as an African American; all my friends were black.”
Stachel smiled as he recalled visiting his best friend’s home, where “his grandmother would treat me like a black kid, cooking me soul food. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a community without any reservation. I felt most comfortable and accepted through this African American grandmother.”
By high school, Stachel said, “I started avoiding being seen in public with my father. I didn’t want to be seen with somebody who looked like an Arab.”
Only in private did the conflicted teenager embrace his heritage, listening to the Israeli Yemeni singer Zion Golan, eating his favorite food (the Yemeni Israeli pastry jachnun) and often visiting his family in Israel for a month at a time. As a baby, his first word was balon, Hebrew for balloon.
“Hebrew was spoken exclusively in my father’s house — he only spoke with his new partner in Hebrew, which is where my ‘fluent-adjacency’ comes from,” Stachel said.
Stachel didn’t have a bar mitzvah in the Bay Area, but “I was in Israel during the last week of my 13th year, and my uncle, who is more religious, was dismayed. He set up a Yemeni bar mitzvah for me four days before I turned 14.”
The deep love Stachel had for his family made his continuing disavowal of their backgrounds impossible to reconcile.
“I knew I wanted to do something public, either as an NBA player or an actor,” he said, “and I remember looking at myself in the mirror in eighth grade and thinking, ‘How on earth can I do that and still pretend that I’m not Middle Eastern?’ ”
At 15, Stachel was urged by his mother to try out for a school musical.
“I got the role, in which I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a pear,” he recalled, “and my mom said, ‘You know, you have a voice.’ ” After that, Stachel left Berkeley High School to attend Oakland School for the Arts, first focusing on dance and then theater.
In 2009, he moved to New York to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where “he was told to expect to play African American roles in his career,” his mother told J. In fact, he did just that in several plays, but he also played a Puerto Rican baseball player in “Take Me Out” and a Puerto Rican father in “Amigo Duende.”
“After he graduated,” his mother added, “he was delighted to get to play an Israeli soldier in ‘Night Blooming Jasmine’ and a Middle Eastern role in ‘Nine Fathers of Ariel.’ He also played an Egyptian in ‘We Live in Cairo.’ ”
In recent years, Stachel has landed some parts on TV shows, such as a character with white parents who posed as a black rapper on the CBS drama “Blue Bloods” and a Puerto Rican in Netflix’s “Jessica Jones,” both in 2015.
The watershed moment in both Stachel’s personal and professional lives came when he first read the script for “The Band’s Visit” in 2015, which opened off-Broadway the following year. Reading the character of Haled, the handsome Egyptian musician who is obsessed with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, “I knew immediately that it needed to be my role.”
It took the show’s creative team much longer — seven Stachel auditions over nine months — to arrive at the same conclusion. It was a tough stretch.
“Looking at my parents, seeing where I come from, there was this feeling that there’s no way my dreams are ever going to come true,” he said. “But over the course of those nine months, I started to believe in myself, and by the final audition it was just mine.”
Added his mother: “He was always ambitious, driven, hard-working and committed. When he chose a career in theater, his sights were set on Broadway.”
The Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit” earned rave reviews, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) and musical adaptation by Itamar Moses.
Moses, 40, the son of Israeli parents, was raised in Berkeley and attended Tehiyah Day School (class of 1991; Stachel was there from the mid-1990s through 2001). Moses has already won some awards for “The Band’s Visit” — including Lucille Lortel and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for outstanding musical, an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new off-Broadway musical and an Obie Award for musical theater.
Stachel grabbed his role in “The Band’s Visit” last year and ran with it, garnering Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best featured actor in a musical.
“The role allows me to exist as myself, proudly, as a Middle Eastern person,” he said. “For eight or 10 years of my life, I couldn’t tell people I was of Yemeni descent without breaking into a cold sweat. Now, because of the visibility of this role, because people are accepting us with open arms, I can be myself. I get to wear this baseball cap [offstage] which says ‘shalom, salaam and peace.’ I feel like I straddle all these identities.
“I’m able to connect with young kids in the Middle East on Twitter and Instagram who tell me they’re feeling represented,” he added. “A Palestinian girl came to the show, ran past the gate afterwards and hugged me, saying the same thing.”
As for his future as an actor, Stachel is eager to tell his personal story, and those of others.
“My experience of the world was shaped very much by the way I looked,” he said. “Now I feel that having this distinctive identity gives me an opportunity to shed light on the diverse lives of Middle Eastern people. I feel like I have a birthright to play these roles.”