Comfortable in Their Own Skins

Despite economic hardship and several setbacks, the Israeli-Ethiopian Natala theater troupe is putting on a new performance.

Cameri Theater, auditorium no. 4. The leading lady, Pruyet Mamo, with a brightly colored print wrapped tightly around her body and with a traditional African head covering, declares in English, "The schoolteacher is full of stories this morning." The director, Yaffa Schuster, stops her: "You must speak slowly and please do not swallow your words." Mamo wearily rolls her eyes, and the rehearsal continues.

Amharic, Arabic, Hebrew and English fill the rehearsal hall being used by the Natala group, an Israeli-Ethiopian theater troupe, currently working on "The Lion and the Jewel." The play, by Nigerian-born Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Literature laureate, will be produced in English to save money and to make it suitable for multicultural audiences. The premiere will be held at the Cameri, which is hosting Natala, and playwright Soyinka will be the guest of honor. Afterward, the production is invited to appear at the Edinburgh International Festival and in Ramallah.

The Natala theater (the natala is the traditional white neck scarf worn by Ethiopians), was established in 1994 and has put on plays about minority groups, discrimination and persecution. In 2002, Natala received special mention at Acco's Festival for Alternative Theater for its production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks."

In 2003, the theater found itself in financial and legal difficulties, and, in 2005, against a background of mismanagement, was forced to shut its doors, losing the economic support it had previously received. Schuster, one of the theater's founders, refused to come to terms with the theater's closing and continues to work with the Natala troupe. "This theater has no home, no budget, and no one here works on a salary basis," she points out. "We get together for theater productions. That is the only way we can keep this theater alive and enable its statement of freedom and independence to survive."

A few years ago, the Natala group found a home at Daily, an intercultural meeting place in Jerusalem working for social change. The name Daily is a play on words on the Hebrew slogan, "Dai LaKibush" (End the Occupation). The center is supported by the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. One of the committee's founders, Ashraf Abu Moch, says, "We are interested in reaching various population groups - including the Ethiopians - and involving them in our activities."

"The Lion and the Jewel" centers on an African village, Ilujinle. The plot focuses on a dispute between village chief Baroka, played by Suhil Hadad ("Avanti Populo," "Gmar Gaviya"), who wants to maintain both tradition and his position in the village, and the local teacher, Lakunle (played by Nathan Wittemberg, a new immigrant from Mexico), who favors progress and modernization.

A white photographer, who chances upon Ilujinle, photographs the teacher's fiancee, Sidi, played by Mamo. Seeing the picture, Baroka wants to have Sidi for himself. The struggle to win her heart will determine the village's future. Sadiku, Baroka's first wife (he has more than one), played by Salwa Nakara ("Hatzotzra Bavadi," "Cappuccino Be-Ramallah") intervenes, trying to persuade the young woman to become another one of her husband's wives. "The play, a comedy written in the late 1950s, presents dilemmas that are also relevant to today's world," notes Schuster. "For instance, should we interfere in the life of a traditional society and force it to adopt Western modes of conduct?"

Schuster, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on education, immigration and bilingualism among Ethiopian children in Israel, chose a cast of Ethiopian, Palestinian and Israeli actors and actresses: "I think this group strongly drives home the play's messages, emphasizes the richness of the human mosaic and reinforces the minority's voice."

Mamo, 25, full of curiosity, wanders about the Cameri's corridors. "This is the realization of a dream," she tells me, her eyes shining. A month ago, she was working in a supermarket in Beit Shemesh, where she lives; she quit her job to have time to participate in the rehearsals. Born in Addis Ababa, she arrived in Israel at the age of nine. She was accepted to Natala when she was still in high school, but was unable to take the pressure. At age 23, after completing cinema and television studies at Sapir College in Sderot, she landed the lead role in "Sippur Horef," a play about an Ethiopian woman living with her husband in an immigrant absorption center.

Mailett Elazar, 34, has been with the theater for several years: "This is the happiest time of my life. I am used to doing rehearsals in the street or in parks, because of a lack of budget. Suddenly, here I am, doing rehearsals in the Cameri." His exclusive devotion to the theater has a price. Recently, he moved back into his parents' home in Ma'aleh Adumim. "I see many of my friends," he muses, "who give up on doing artistic work and choose instead to make a proper living, but I do not quit easily. I have put on a one-man production, I write and teach youth drama and music in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Kiryat Menahem, but you cannot make a living from that kind of stuff."

Nakara remarks that her decision to take the role was based on professional considerations: "I don't care about the skin color of the actors and actresses I am working with, and that has never affected my choice of roles. I was attracted by this excellent play." She adds, "We live in a multicultural country and, unfortunately, we have not yet learned how to make good use of that fact. When that aspect expresses itself here, it is difficult to ignore its power and beauty."

As far as Hadad is concerned, "Natala has a mission and I am delighted to strengthen it and to contribute my acting talents to help make this important production a success."

Only Wittemberg, the 35-year-old new immigrant from Mexico, admits, "There are many problems, but they have nothing to do with consolidating a multicultural society; they are linked to the universality of theater in general."

It is difficult to deny that, behind the scenes, as in every production, there are tensions between the actors and actresses over seniority and professionalism. One issue still being debated is Wittemberg's skin color. Schuster would like to darken the tone of his skin to emphasize his being an integral part of the village. Hadad and Nakara disagree. "Just as blacks can play every role in the theater, whites should be allowed to perform in their natural skin tone," notes Nakara. "I have not yet decided," Schuster confesses.

At 10 P.M. the rehearsals have to stop. Although the premiere is right around the corner, the leading lady must get home to Beit Shemesh; she has two buses to catch.