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Theater People: two women stage their own Mideast conflict

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Two actresses--one a Jew from Skokie, the other the daughter of Palestinian refugees--team up to write and perform a show about the Arab-Israeli blood feud. Talk about foolhardy. What do they think they're going to do that dozens of other earnest artists haven't done already? Make peace?

Well, no, not exactly. As much as Donna Blue Lachman and Rula Sirhan Gardenier long for peace between their respective tribes, their new play, ...For You Were a Stranger..., isn't designed to be a means to that end. If anything, it's a further provocation. Tracing the feud back to its biblical roots and examining it from a woman's perspective, the show takes a plague-on-both-your-houses approach toward the conflict in the Middle East that sets the eternal question of who did what to whom on a whole different footing.

The 80-minute result of nearly four years of struggle, . . . For You Were a Stranger. . . offers an episodic view of the Arab-Jewish relationship as embodied by women from three historical periods. The first section introduces the primal mothers of the two groups, Sarai and Hagar, each of whom can claim a son by Abraham. In part two, Jewish Hannah and Muslim Zahra try to survive the medieval Christian conquest of Granada, Spain. Episode three, set in Israel just after the 1967 war, depicts the confrontation between a Palestinian refugee named Ibrahima and the Holocaust survivor, Michal, who has taken up residence in Ibrahima's old house.

The first story sets the show's revisionist tone. Sarai is portrayed as a priestess of the mother goddess who refuses to renounce her animistic spirits, her "eyes of the desert," regardless of how much Abraham insists on his patriarchal monotheism--or what she sneeringly calls his "bachelor God." Hagar, Sarai's devoted handmaiden, becomes pregnant with Ishmael (the legendary father of the Arabs) only to satisfy the barren old woman's desire for an heir. But when Sarai miraculously gives birth to her own son, Isaac, all bets are off. A rift forms between the two women, aggravated by the bachelor God's promises of a vast legacy for each.

Lachman and Gardenier suggest that the real conflict isn't between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. Mythologically and theologically they're the closest of kin. The real conflict is between matriarchy and patriarchy, polytheism and monotheism, the tribal "eyes of the desert" and the colonizing, cunning God of Abraham.

Gardenier has a very personal stake in this view of things. Raised in Bahrain and England by parents who fled Israel in 1948, she was betrothed while still an infant and signed a marriage contract at the age of 17. But rather than consummate that paper reality, she ran away. Now 40, with an American husband and two children, she is vehement in her rejection of traditional Arab patriarchy. "I have a son," she says, "who I am so in love with I can't even explain. I can just see his beauty as a man already. And I hope to nurture that and make it full and not burn out his heart with patriarchal ideas. I don't think Arabs will ever know or be anything until they understand respect for the female and respect for their girls and for their women."

For Lachman, the political isn't quite so personal. A longtime presence in Chicago theater, she has cultivated her own Sarai-like spiritual identity, basing a series of autobiographical plays on experiences like studying to become a voodoo mambo in Haiti and pursuing a vision quest in the American southwest. At times her New Age-Old Wisdom sensibilities put her at odds with Gardenier during the creation of ...For You Were a Stranger.... Where Gardenier saw the play unambiguously as a chance to "rail on the patriarchy...to be blatant about saying we have to raise men differently," Lachman held out for something else. "I didn't want to pigeonhole it," she says. "I didn't want to ghettoize. I wanted it to be bigger than about men and women, vaginas and penises. I wanted it to be just so much more universal than that."

Hashing out the script only seemed to further polarize the pair, as they found themselves unable to resist taking sides--especially when it came time to deal with the events of 1967. "There was argument. There was distrust," says Lachman. "And we both realized that we couldn't agree. [Rula] has such strong feelings because of what happened to her people in Palestine that her whole thing right from the beginning was wanting to be this wounded animal that just digs into this Jew like crazy, to just get her stuff out." Ironically Lachman was backing away from her own anti-Zionist sentiments, her attempt to inhabit Michal--the Holocaust survivor of the third section--having opened her to more ambiguity than she'd counted on. She was suddenly protective of the character, reluctant to let her seem ugly or hateful.

Gardenier and Lachman began to realize the obvious: they were playing out the feud they'd hoped to transcend. "It was torturous," says Lachman. "We fought, even to say 'shut up!'...I've always said to Rula that we're in sort of a crucible together, her and I, because of all these years working on this. And we're not gonna quit. We're not gonna walk away from the show. We are tied together, we can't quit, and we have to fight it out. We have to go through the door to each other. Just like Arabs and Jews."

Ultimately they found a way, if not to agree, then at least to accommodate both viewpoints in dramatic form. The show has an ending, arrived at after a seven-hour session of writing, grieving, and negotiating. It'll open as planned, and neither the Jew nor the Palestinian walked out. In fact, Gardenier and Lachman seem to be in the throes of a tired sort of exaltation. "I am so happy and I'm loving doing this," says Lachman. "I'm really loving doing this. And I have been in hell."

Preview performances of ...For You Were a Stranger... are Friday and Saturday, January 16 and 17, at 7 PM at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo. The show opens Friday, January 23, at 7 and runs through March 21. Tickets are $20 and $25. On Sunday, January 18, there'll be a gala performance at 4 PM; tickets to that are $100. Call 312-362-9707 or 800-594-8499 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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