It’s easy to paint the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a broad brush and say there are just two sides.
Aaron Davidman would probably say that’s a mistake.
Davidman has performed his one-man play, Wrestling Jerusalem, since Oct. 18 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre and is preparing to take his final bow after the last performance Nov. 5.
The play, which began as a commissioned piece and premiered in San Francisco in 2014, tackles the ongoing conflict as Davidman embodies multiple real-life characters and perspectives in an effort to truly understand it.
It makes no final conclusions or generalizations, but he aims to humanize the conflict.
“It breaks [the conflict] into more than two sides,” he said. “It breaks it into the multifaceted prism that it really is, and that could stand in for any polarized conflict that we’re seeing in the headlines these days.
“When people forget the humanity of those that are different from them,” he added, “it’s very easy to be contemptuous and write off the other side as being worthless and that’s when we lose our contact with our own humanity as well, and that’s a slippery slope.”
After a seven-year writing process that included many trips to Israel and interviewing dozens and dozens of people, it became a solo piece that doubled as a learning experience — though you have to see the play to find out what it is he learned.
“The whole point of the play is that I can’t really answer that question, actually, what did I learn from that,” explained the Berkeley, Calif., native who studied at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan. “It’s too complex. So I took seven years and developed a 90-minute play to answer that question.”
He took his first trip to Israel when he was 25 years old — a “transformative” experience he discusses in the play — and he lived and studied there for about six months.
For him, that trip was an opportunity to search for his roots as he did not grow up in a religious family.
Wrestling Jerusalem is his first solo piece, and while he laughed that the biggest difference is “there’s no one on stage to save me,” the solo aspect became paramount as he began developing the final product.
“It was really about how can one person hold multiple perspectives,” he explained, “so that became really, in a certain sense, the metaphor for the piece. Playing all these different characters and holding all these different points of view inside of me — that’s the exercise here.”
It’s also an exercise perhaps more people should try on their own, as “we’re living in an age right now of deep polarization,” he observed.
“Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added, “we need to rekindle our ability as a democratic society to allow multiplicity into the public sphere and to allow real, thoughtful, nuanced conversation and debate back into the center of our lives because we’re living in a dangerous moment, and this play humanizes a very polarized issue.”
He has delved into this topic before through other works, such as a play called Blood Relative, which he co-wrote and directed while serving as artistic director for the Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco.
The subject is one he looks at through his own Jewish lens.
“I approach this coming from a place of being a Jewish artist and a Jewish American,” he said, “that our relationship to Israel and Palestine is really important and how we speak about it in public and what we can and can’t say about this issue in public per the kind of structures and frameworks and taboos that various elements in our culture hold — that makes me want to respond to that as an artist.”
His goal for the play is to give people a push to see beyond their own perspectives.
That’s an approach he will take as he works on new material, teasing another solo piece that tackles a polarized issue — without specifying what just yet — through multiple perspectives.
“I hope their armor is softened around this particular topic,” he said, “and that they meet some characters and open themselves to some narratives that they might not have come into contact with before or that they might have dismissed.”
But if you want to see the play, you better hurry: He isn’t sure it will be performed anywhere after Philadelphia as he’s wrapping up a three-year run traveling and performing across North America.
“This could be it,” he teased, “so come on down to the theater and see it.”
For tickets, visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.
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