When the Ethnic Genie Starts Dancing

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Is it permissible to say that the characters are primitive, or to argue that the humor is base? What happens when an Ashkenazi critic views “Flower of the Neighborhood,” a performance based on the songs of Kobi Oz, the Israeli popular musician best known as the lead singer of Teapacks.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but the list of artists whose music has been the basis for shows I have seen on various stages – nearly all in the context of repertory theater – includes: Zvika Pik, Zohar Argov (at least twice), Mike Brant (twice), Shlomo Artzi, Danny Sanderson – and now Kobi Oz.

The idea is not original, but it does have a certain poetic and historical justice. From the 1930s to the 1950s, numbers written for Broadway musicals, which appealed to audiences and singers alike, provided the source for hit parades. With time, singers (some of whom were also composers and lyricists in their own right) also started turning out hits.

Then came the musical stage’s turn to collect. That's how “Mamma Mia!” was born – by taking musical hits by Abba, and weaving them through a flimsy, ridiculous plot. A new musical was brought to audiences, propelled by popularity.

That’s the theory, and its current incarnation is “Flower of the Neighborhood,” a stage musical based on the songs of Kobi Oz at the Be’er Sheva Theater.
However, unlike the hits I mentioned above, this isn’t a case of the theater exploiting the singer-songwriter; Kobi Oz is the playwright and the musical director of this show.

While some of those other productions had ethnic-cultural plot points (like in the cases of Zohar Argov and Mike Brant, the artist succeeds against all odds, is accepted after initially being scorned, and then fails because of character flaws), here the ethnic and social gap – which has been a focal point in Israeli society, history and politics – is the heart of the matter. The ethnic genie has been out of the bottle for some time now, but now it is singing and dancing center stage.

Cringe-worthy 'colorful' characters

The plot surrounding Oz's songs is set in a development town in southern Israel, not far from Be’er Sheva, where it is being staged. The show begins with the appearance of the family patriarch, Masoud Buzaglo – a symbolic name in contemporary Israeli culture on both sides of the ethnic gap – who speaks to us from beyond. He appears in his widow's dream during the seven-day mourning period.

This scene is marked by a pleasant atmosphere and agreeable humor (Masoud is amiably played by Meir Suissa), the atmosphere in Oz's music and lyrics takes a sharp turn in the following scenes, during the shiva at the Buzaglo family home.
Before I continue, I think it would be appropriate to expand the scope a bit here, to reach behind the scenes to my experience as a spectator and participant in Israel’s social theater. It is no secret that I am Ashkenazi (a Jew of European origin; I hail from Poland), and am an unabashed enthusiast of high-brow culture. I still believe the quality of a cultural work is measured both by its complexity and by its intentions, and I refuse to accept the majority view as the only criterion for cultural quality. I will add that this work by Oz, the musical artist and author, came across as complex and multifaceted; it doesn't turn a blind eye to social gaps, yet at the same time is self-deprecating, ironic and humorous.

I will further add that I do not deny the picture Oz’s plots paints, in which the Ashkenazi (myself included) exploits and rejects Masoud, a good soul and fervent Zionist. And since Masoud is killed in a Qassam rocket attack, the fate of inhabitants of the south, who am I, a content Tel Avivian living in a bubble, to say anything about a show like this? Nevertheless, I am allowing myself to say a few words about the following scenes, set during the shiva and full of “colorful” characters from the southern town – including a slick lawyer named Sami Kenan (Ami Anidjar), whose former name was Vaaknin, Sumo Levy (Shlomo Koriat), a horny, Bible-quoting rabbi, the supposedly mysterious Amilyahu (Uri Zagouri) and a woman neighbor (played by Maayan Turgeman). I found myself cringing in my chair in response to what looked like a primitive and raucous stage sketch.

I would like to stress: No, I didn’t think it was primitive because of the ethnic element. I thought it was primitive from a dramatic and theatrical perspective – crudely drawn, pandering to the audience, looking for easy laughs. Above all, these characters seemed to me to be distorted and wicked caricatures, each of which emphasizes one characteristic attributed to ethnic origin (for example, accents or body language). The widow (played by Evelin Hagoel) uses an expression from standard spoken-formal Hebrew in an exaggerated way and not always in the correct context (which is actually a nice point), and she complains that some of the characters' behavior is “disproportionate.” When it comes to proportions, I found them to be lacking in how the southern town is depicted. I felt insulted on the inhabitants' behalf for being depicted that way on stage.

At the same time, I heard the audience in the large auditorium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv loud and clear. Before the performance I formed the impression that a large part of the audience was of Russian origin and not from Morocco. They enjoyed themselves tremendously and demonstratively, both during the show and at its end. And even if this isn’t the first time my tastes have clashed with the majority opinion, I find my aesthetic reasons more convincing, in most cases. My aversion to what I saw on stage has prompted me to examine myself time and again.

The right proportion

The Kobi Oz character in this play is Jojo Buzaglo (Guy Zoaretz) – Masoud's son, who becomes religiously observant, then lapses, goes to the big city, finds his childhood love (Liraz Charhi), transforms her into a successful singer, loses her and is supposed to win her back so that there's a happy ending – i.e., a wedding. Zoaretz and Charhi provide the stardust and are up to the task, even if she gets carried away with hysterical acting that is – you guessed it – disproportionate, both in the laugher in the first act and in the wailing and weeping in the second act.

Two more things weighed heavily on the production: The stage design, which is based on a structure that looks like a concrete frame around an empty stage, into which other elements are introduced as needed. It looked quite careless, but mainly devoid of sophistication. Second, the play relied on students and graduates of the local acting school, which did not contribute to its professional sheen.
On the one hand, the production was the right move for Oz, an interesting artist with a clear Israeli worldview who is able to rise above stereotypes of ethnicity. He expresses a kind of multifaceted and mature "Israeliness," precisely in the sparks of his seemingly childish humor. He has created a production using his own songs that treats its characters with a loving but critical eye.

On the other hand, because the supporting cast is dragged into “ethnic” excesses and because of the temptation for cheap laughs (by way of ethnic jokes) the outcome – as far as I remember – falls far from the sincere intentions set forth in the show's program.

I have tried to depict here what I felt while watching the production. At the same time, an interview I once saw with a comedian of Pakistani origin also comes to mind. He had created a comedy series about his Pakistani family and was asked about ethnic humor and its dangers. He explained that there are clear boundaries: “I am allowed to make fun of my mother. You aren’t.”

I wonder if my reservations about “Flower of the Neighborhood” aren’t somehow biased or mistaken. After all, it makes fun of its own mother. It is allowed to. I'm not really – even if sometimes I wish I could.

'The Flower of the Neighborhood': Doesn't shy away from ethnic stereotypes.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky
Kobi Oz.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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