Just before a Wednesday matinee of Aaron Davidman's one-man show Wrestling Jerusalem, through Nov. 5 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, an audience member said, "I'm already mad. Any show with the word Jerusalem in it would send me home angry. I could have a conversation with myself about it and get angry with myself."
He wasn't alone. Some were, like him, pre-angry. We'd all brought to the theater the myriad things Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine, and their troubled entanglement mean to us and to the world.
We would be further troubled. For 80 thoughtful, passionate minutes, against a desert-hued backdrop with a blood-red splash across, Davidman channels 17 separate voices, viewpoints, or, as he calls them, "fragments." We visit Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, the Kalandia Checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem. He sings an Israeli folk tune – and glissandos into a muezzin's cry of Allahu akbar. Harangues, arguments, accents, jokes. We get lost. We have a fearful moment or two.
Davidman begins the only way this show could – "It's complicated." Period. Then a blistering collage. "You might say," he begins, and then machine-guns various historical moments this or that group claims as the "source" of the problem: this or that massacre, the Six Day War, U.N. Resolution 181, the politicians, 1947. It sets each jealously defended "starting point" with all others. None have privilege. That in itself would be enough to anger.
We meet Tariq, a man for whom anyone who believes in God is essentially a Muslim. Farah, a social worker in Ramallah, is dedicated to nonviolence yet sympathetic to the violent struggle. A dishwasher by the Red Sea reminds us we are commanded to "love the stranger" – yet another cries, "Who is the stranger here?" A man thrashes in bed as Mideast headlines stampede in his mind, haunted by the legacy of "6 million ghosts – will they ever rest?"
"I can't piece anything together here," says Davidman, as (apparently) himself. "Then it occurs to me: Maybe the fragments are all we have."
The high point is a Jewish man who says he's been visiting Israel since before the Six Day War in 1967. He says, in knowing explosiveness, "The state of Israel is not my Judaism." Jews always have been barrier-breakers, agents of change in the world, acting on behalf of "the God of becoming," he says, and that is why they are hated. Mystical, passionate, exalted in pain that leads to an agonized recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4: "Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" – as against a situation, and a self, "exploding in a million fragments."
If Davidman could hear that audience member, or see the faces as people left the theater, he might be satisfied at the understanding, objection, perplexity, cross-purposes, resistance. The show seemed to be a big ask for some – probably inevitable with a play that revisits much-tilled territory, resists closure, invites impatience. Wrestling Jerusalem is a healthy call to summon anger, then turn away – to as many other ways of seeing and feeling as we can stand, and more. Maybe the fragments are all we have.