Wrestling Jerusalem

by John Stoltenberg

“It’s complicated.”

So begins—on a note of supreme understatement—Writer/Performer Aaron Davidman’s captivating and insight-rich solo show, Wrestling Jerusalem, the third provocative production in Mosaic Theater’s inaugural season.

The title is a play on the biblical name Israel, which originally (Genesis 32:28) meant  wrestling with God. In Wrestling Jerusalem, Davidman attempts no less a project than bringing to the stage the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict—solely through the medium of one Jewish American traveler’s eloquent first-hand accounts and the acting instrument of one virtuoso performer.

Davidman starts out with a riveting fast-paced riff compiling   historical/cultural/geographic/political/religious sources and sore spots cited as causes of the conflict. The effect is both amusing in its dizzyingness and sobering in its hopelessness. Before long one senses a more apt title would be Interrogating the Terrible. Or Unpacking the Intractable.

Davidman has an engaging presence on stage—he moves like a dancer, pivots on a dime when he shifts between bits and scenes, fills the vast Lang Theatre with a sense of intimacy and urgency, conveys a conviction that speaks volumes. Plus the show is well leavened with wry wit. (He tells a joke about a rabbi who has been praying for peace at the Western Wall for forty years. I won’t give away the off-color punchline but on opening night it had the audience roaring.)

Then the real drama of the evening unfolds. As Davidman takes us with him on his journey, channeling people he meets along the way, sketching  characters in dialect and diction, keeping faith with folks in opposing factions who have not done so with one another, seeking universalizable shreds of hope, he’s like Walt Whitman writ larger than life (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). It’s impressive; awe-inspiring, actually.  Yet one has to wonder: How is this possible? How can one human being do what Davidman has determined to do?

That was the dilemma faced by Anna Deavere Smith in her solo show Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and analogously by David Hare in his solo show Via Dolorosa—both of which I saw the creators perform. Davidman is a sort of hybrid, artfully combining elements of Deavere Smith’s uncanny vocal mimesis and Hare’s authorial gravitas. Yet there Davidman stands alone on stage as an individual, expecting us to believe he’s really not.

Though Davidman’s journey sometimes borders on edutainment, it also yields some mind-blowing insights. For instance, one of the characters he inhabits explains the physiology of trauma that is driving the politics of animus between Israelis and Palestinians. “We are two societies living in profound fear,” he says. “Trauma is trauma.” The persistent message of  all their “recycled trauma”? “I am not safe.”

At another point Davidman gives voice to a character who parses the Hebrew prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4) that observant Jews say daily (it’s sometimes translated “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”). That last part, God is one, Davidman’s character does an amazing number on. God is one, he says, does not mean Our God is the only one. It means what it says: God is one. God is all. And God is everyone’s one God.

In the moment of that exegetical epiphany, the singular form of this solo drama suddenly resounded with hope. For if one actor can embody other lives on stage this vividly, this compassionately, this expansively, can there possibly be a more apt human metaphor for God’s infinite embrace of us all?

The more one wrestles with Mosaic Theater’s Wrestling Jerusalem,  the more one uncovers a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Wrestling Jerusalem plays through January 24, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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