by Myra Chanin
Nathanial Sam Shapiro’s splendid Diaspora is so packed with feelings, history and ideas that it’s easier to laud than to describe. Diaspora is the result of Shapiro evaluating history and mining his own deeply personal experiences, questions and issues, similar to the ones that many young American Jews grapple with now that they are no longer confined to physical, emotional or intellectual ghettos.
Some of Shapiro’s questions? “What’s the essence of the Jewish spirit? Who are our heroes? How do we connect with Israel and our past?” He felt that Masada, with its link to the heritage trips of today, was the perfect place to examine these questions and placed young, Jewish tourists up close with their historical ancestors, forcing them to confront the contemporary meaning of Jewishness and the nature of Israel today.
Diaspora segues between 73 AD and the present. According to Roman Historian Flavius, Masada is where in 73 AD, Hebrew Sicarii rebels – that era’s assassination cloak and sicca dagger units who’d previously killed Jewish Roman sympathizers as well as Romans – staged a mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman legions who’d breached their defenses. Another interpretation? That their leader, Eleazar Ben Yair (Joe Tapper) in the play was a sociopathic motivational speaker cum cutthroat capitalist whose followers were never given a choice between living in slavery and what Eleazar considered an honorable death. Sicarii characters deal with weighty subjects — life, death, survival, the presence of God on Masada, Abraham’s covenant with God, their expulsion from Jerusalem, their love of Torah, God’s promises of miracles and how worldwide antisemitism kept Jews apart but ultimately brought them together.
The present is represented by a 14-person group of young Americans and a few Israelis on a funded Birthright Israel trip which their benefactors hope will convince them to choose Jewish mates and raise Jewish children. They converse about electronic gadgets, drugs, share masturbation techniques and details of meaningless, unemotional, detached hookups with even more casual acquaintances described with as much feeling as one might apply to details of a bowling date. The boys seem powerless. The girls are impressed by the Israeli soldiers because they’re independent, seem powerful and look hot. I found the girls extremely shallow, until I honestly reexamined myself at that age. I was just as superficial but more secretive and self-protective, looking for love rather than sex. If you’re an older audience member, surprisingly in the minority, the dialog may shock you, but most ticket buyers, between 18-35, really got the characters and found the dialog LOL worthy.
Olivia (Connie Castanzo), the contemporary “leader” sounds like a Valley Girl. As the young people connect with their history, their remarks take profound and uncomfortable for them turns. Their favorite spot in Israel? The graveyard on a mountain in Jerusalem where all the soldiers who were killed in the Israeli wars for independence are buried. It convinces the visitors that life in Israel is serious. “Like, we might be coming back to Israel with our husbands and kids and, like, see Lior’s grave there. And we’ll all be like, ‘Holy Shit, I remember when Jocey hooked up with him.”
Several are unmoved by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, but they respond to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. They can’t fathom how the Jews didn’t fight back, as they like to believe they would have. Rachel (Maggie Metnick) has a different reaction. “People should be fucking shocked and like, not be able to stop crying,” before admitting she intends to take a bus to the West Bank, have a fling with Ghasson, a Palestinian she met on the internet, and afterwards give him her Playstation and games. Lior points out that the Americans killed all of their Palestinians with smallpox, guns, alcohol and reservations.
The conclusion overlaps ancient and current wars.
Director Saheem Ali, not a Jewish name, has great credits and deserves great credit for his sensitivity to the 8 actors in search of 22 characters in two time zones — Serena Berman, Connie Castanzo, Ava Eisenson, Quinn Franzen, Tom McVey, Maggie Metnick, Joe Tapper and RJ Vaillancourt. Their exquisite body movements fit each character they play either part or full-time and produce a surplus of naches, i.e. parental pride for a child’s accomplishments, for Moms and Dads of every persuasion.
Nathaniel Sam Shapiro is a playwright with a future. Three days after seeing the play, I’m unable to stop thinking about it. He’s very Jewish in the best sense of the word – willing to do whatever it takes, including historical research – to find the truth. He also knows people, even CEO’s of 73 AD. His scenes are intriguing. His dialogue is bold and funny. Even his Playbill notes are worth reading. He asks whether our defining itinerancy will ever stop? His guess is that it won’t and it’s what makes Jews, Jews. I’m looking forward to hearing his more to come.
Get there early enough to score a front row seat. You’ll be able to understand what the actors say better. Note: Better amplification couldn’t hurt.
Photos: Mati Gelman
Diaspora is being performed until Saturday, December 23 www.diasporatheplay.com
Gym at Judson theater at 243 Thompson Street