The festive atmosphere of an opening night was present as the curtain rose on the Jaffa Theatre’s performance of “Umm Kulthum” on Thursday night and the haunting strains of classical Arabic music wafted into the night air.
Although it was far from the first time the theater had staged this musical about the legendary Egyptian singer – the show has been a staple in the theater’s repertoire since 2015 – the performance was indeed a cause for celebration. It was the first professional theater performance in Israel since coronavirus social-distancing restrictions completely shuttered the country’s cultural scene in early March.
The show was staged in the large courtyard outside the stone building bearing the sign “The Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa.” The performance space was carefully arranged, in keeping with the new official government rules allowing cultural gatherings of up to 50 people. Tables for two were placed cabaret-style, properly distant from one another – the stage on one side; a dramatic view of the Mediterranean and the Tel Aviv skyline on the other.
Audience members had their temperatures taken as they handed an attendant their tickets, but otherwise they could forget about pandemics for the evening. Once they were seated at their tables, they was able to sip their drinks and watch the story of Egypt’s iconic songstress unfold.
Veteran performer Galit Giat starred as the singer with the uniquely deep and rich voice, who, as a young girl, began performing dressed as a boy with a Bedouin headdress. The musical recounts her life story, from her rise to fame in the 1920s and transformation from naive country girl to urban sophisticate, to her complicated relationship with musical collaborators, successful navigation of her country’s changing politics and ascendance to the status of national institution, until her death in 1975 at age 76.
A moment before the show began, the theater’s co-founder and manager, Igal Ezraty, took the stage and emotionally thanked the audience.
“You gave us so much strength by showing up. We planned this without knowing whether you would. Thanks for coming,” he said.
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Ezraty said in an interview that he had been planning for this day from the moment theaters were shuttered over two months ago. He said he had vowed that as soon as it would be possible to stage a performance outdoors in the courtyard, he would do so.
The government only announced a target date to permit gatherings of no more than 50 people two weeks before “Umm Kulthum” took the stage. But as soon as the news broke about the partial reopening, Ezraty announced the four shows he had in mind and began selling tickets. It was, he admitted, a “gamble.”
He only got explicit permission to stage the show two days before it happened – and he made his plans without knowing whether audiences would be ready to return.
Beaming with pleasure after the performance, he said his gamble had paid off.
“It is so exciting to come back after two months. Our actors have been worried and depressed – both because their passion is performing and, of course, because they need to earn a living. We believe that culture is like food or health care: without it, life has no meaning. And certainly, if you’re going to open up beaches and restaurants, you have to restart cultural life. It’s important to show that culture is important.
“We’re losing money on this, but we knew we wanted and needed to do this for both our audience and our theater – especially the actors,” he said.
‘Very dark place’
Giat, 49, basked in her standing ovation when the show ended, receiving a bouquet of roses from a devoted fan. Afterward, having changed from her flowing costumes into jeans and a T-shirt, she was upbeat and energetic, despite having sung nonstop for nearly two hours. Performing once more, she said, had lifted her spirits tremendously.
Performing the role outdoors hadn’t been a problem, she added: The show has been staged outdoors on occasion over its five-year run, during which it has entertained audiences in a wide range of venues in Israel and globally. A successful tour brought the show to Paris and Marseille last October, before COVID-19 struck and the arts world was forced into hibernation.
“The most frustrating thing for people in our profession has been the uncertainty,” said Giat. “It has been very hard on a personal level, and thank God we are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. There was a point during this that I could see only darkness: the fact that my profession, my livelihood, could just be completely erased from the world.”
Not knowing when she would perform again took her “to a very bad place,” she said.
As well as missing the spotlight and financial concerns, Giat said she “looked at how we were training ourselves to stay away from each other. I asked myself: Would people ever come together again to see a show? It really messed with my mind.”
The actress said she felt fortunate to be part of an ensemble that was nimble enough to come back so quickly, crediting Ezraty. “Igal is a man who has an idea and immediately makes it happen,” she said. “He’s a doer, and that’s what makes him great – he works with the knowledge that art is a need. I feel lucky to work at a place led with such courage and vision.”
The four outdoor performances, beginning with “Umm Kulthum,” were carefully chosen from the theater’s repertoire. They are all musical shows, with no heavy themes. “People need to smile and laugh right now,” Ezraty said. “We chose productions that suit the outdoor venue, that are more musical and fun; where people can sit around a table, drink and enjoy themselves.”
The theater and Ezraty had an additional reason to celebrate last week: With the formation of Israel’s new government, Kahol Lavan lawmaker Chili Tropper was sworn in as the country’s new culture minister. The previous minister, Miri Regev, had taken aim at the institution since entering the post in 2015: She filed a police complaint against the theater in 2017 and threatened to cut its funding, publicly charging that it had “turned from a platform for culture into a platform for terror.” She was specifically angered by two events – one featuring a recital of letters written by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; the other honoring Israeli-Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who was jailed for five months for posting a poem on Facebook that “incited terrorism.”
Frustrated when the Finance Ministry thwarted her attempts to make good on her threats, Regev advocated for the passage of a cultural loyalty bill, which would have given her the authority to revoke government funding to cultural institutions deemed insufficiently patriotic.
Though such a law was never passed, Ezraty admitted he was “relieved” to no longer have “the threat of such a law hanging over our heads.”
He said he was “very optimistic” about the future, and hoped “the new culture minister will open the theaters soon” so his theater and others would not be limited to performing outdoors.
On Sunday, three days after Ezraty's wish, the Health Ministry announced that performances in theaters and other venues will be permitted starting June 14, subject to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The outdoor setting certainly brought unique challenges. At one point during the performance, an amplified call to prayer from a neighboring mosque could be heard over the dialogue and music. And just across the water in Tel Aviv, lights could be seen flashing and music humming from a rally and concert calling for, ironically, a full return to cultural life. That event, which attracted some 5,000 attendees with scant consideration for social distancing, was a radical contrast to the carefully planned theater performance.
The outdoors venue and the theater’s reassurances that the audience would be suitably spaced meant that even older theatergoers felt safe to attend.
Kalanit Sharon, 31, saw the show advertised on Facebook and invited her 68-year-old mother, Pessia, to attend. “I knew she really missed going to the theater,” Kalanit said. “On the one hand, you look back and see that not too much time passed since going to a show – but it really felt like a long time. It was hard not knowing when we’d get to go back.”
Her beaming mother added, “This helped us return to a feeling of normality.”