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    Bavel

    The problematic relationship between Israel's Ethiopian immigrants and its established Sephardic/Ashkenazic culture has given birth to a particularly provocative brand of theater that uses traditional Ethiopian music and storytelling in a modern context. The first example to reach our shores is "Bavel," a new play by Netela Theatre of Israel, written and directed by Moshe Malka and performed by a mostly-Ethiopian cast of 13. The waves of Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel during the '80s and '90s as a "forgotten child" invoked the aura of the Lost Tribes and intimations of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. As welcome as these new Israelis were, their problems of assimilating into the more modern, technological culture of the Jewish State have been more visible than those of their European or Arabic immigrant predecessors. Ethiopian culture and language are quite exotic, by Israeli standards . Then there is the self-consciousness of a people who look different. Some Ethiopian jews exhibit a feeling of alienation that would be familiar to American Blacks. "Being black wherever you are is to be automatically discriminated against," agrees Yaffa Schuster, who is actually Ashkenazic but is Artistic Director of Netela Theatre, a principally-Ethiopian troupe that was established in Jerusalem in 1994. "But once you are good on your own stage, you are finally good enough." Schuster leads the troupe in collaboration with Zena Adhanani, Theatre Director, who is Ethiopian. Both are actors by training; Adhanani is also a musician and dancer who graduated from University of Haifa. Such is the impulse to the creation of an absolutely new genre of world theater. "Bavel," a multilingual play performed in Hebrew, Amharic (the main language of Ethiopia), English and Swedish, is America's first taste of the theater born of the Ethiopian Israeli experience. But the Netela Theatre is also known for two other works, "Stone Shoes," a play describing Ethiopian immigrant experiences through music, dance and narrative, and "Black Netela," a musical dealing with the conflict of Ethiopian immigrants longing for home and their difficult adjustment to Israeli society. The latter was chosen by the International Theatre Festival in Budapest to represent Israel in 1996. "Bavel" bowed in Israel's Acco Festival in 2000. "Bavel" synthesizes mythic traditions of African ancient cultures with the personal stories of the actors of the troupe. It is about unrooted people who wander in an endless search for hope and salvation. Israeli critics have commended as interesting and important its fusion of African ancient cultures with modern theater. The story is actually a play-within-a-play in which a storyteller, a "fool on a hill," tells a tale of a princess whose prince was kidnapped by a wicked magician. The play was constructed out of the actors' personal stories, which are proto-mythically transposed into the events of the play. A grandmother tells her granddaughter about her lost lover; a drunken husband has conflicts with his wife and a criminal friend; a hungry prostitute looks for clients. The plots seem to universalize the experience of immigrants who never seem to arrive anywhere but are always on a journey. Throughout, traditional Ethiopian music and singing are used. Hebrew, Amharic and Enghlish are used to portray the "foreigners." Westernism is represented by Swedish. For the benefit of American audiences, the non-English dialogue will be simultaneously translated in projections.

    Dates:  Feb. 7, 2002 - Feb. 10, 2002
    Schedule:  Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 10 at 5 p.m.
    Venue:  Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street
    Price:  $20
    Tickets/info:  (917) 606-8200


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