The Bosom of Abraham

Double jeopardy: Nathan Surprenant and Stephen Frethem in <i>Never the Sinner</i>

Double jeopardy: Nathan Surprenant and Stephen Frethem in Never the Sinner

Plays that tackle weighty social themes often come with a bonus prize--a post-show discussion! The director, or cast members, or playwright--or sometimes all three--will take a folding chair onto the stage and entertain questions from the audience, who usually trip over themselves to compliment the piece, comment on the need for theater like this, and state what a pleasure it is to see such a momentous theme turned so eloquently into drama. For playwright Allan Havis, commissioned by the Mixed Blood Theatre to write A Jew on Ethiopia Street, the post-show discussion this past Thursday seemed promising indeed. He is, after all, a Jewish playwright and he has written a play about the fascinating story of Ethiopian Jews. Further, his audience for the evening had been provided by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota: Some members of the audience wore yarmulkes, others wore scarves with Hebrew lettering on the tags. Havis even opened with a Jewish joke (Child nearly drowns. Grandmother begs God for help. Hand of God stretches out to save child. Grandmother shakes fist at heavens, crying out, "He had a hat!"). And the audience was duly appreciative, laughing at the joke and complimenting his writing. They also had some issues to discuss.

You see, Havis has written a play set in Israel, where most of the Ethiopian Jews have settled. The year is 1996, when the Israeli government committed an enormous blunder that begged to be read symbolically: They encouraged Ethiopian Jews to donate blood during a massive national blood drive, and then, worried about the high rates of AIDS in African countries, threw the blood away. The settlement of Ethiopian Jews into the state of Israel has been as fraught with difficulties as any mass resettlement. These people trace their ancestry directly back to King Solomon, but in Israel the authenticity of their Jewish identity was questioned. Ethiopian Jews struggled for resources with other new groups of Jewish immigrants, particularly a deluge of Russian immigrants, most of whom were not Jews at all, but claimed to be in order to take advantage of Israel's Law of Return, which grants Jews instant Israeli citizenship. Havis has compounded the complexities of the play by adding into the mix another group of Ethiopian immigrants, called the Falas Mura, who are Ethiopian Jews that have converted to Christianity, but still suffer persecution at home for their ancestry.

Havis's play suffers from a necessary compression--he has awkwardly crushed a thicket of tricky politics into the story of a single Ethiopian Jew, Eti Shlomo (played by Togba Norris), and his Falas Mura girlfriend (Antu Yacob). Eti possesses a singular gift: He is an extraordinary runner. His uncle, a government functionary (ordinarily played by Tamrat Tademe, but understudied on Thursday by Marvin Grays, fumbling for his lines), attempts to sell that skill to an American talent scout (Joe Minjares), who has close connections in the Israeli government. In exchange, the uncle hopes that the talent scout will apply political pressure to Shimon Peres to support a massive airlift of the Falas Mura out of Addis Ababa. The resulting story is riddled with graceless plot contrivances in order to illustrate political points (there is a robbery and an assault that feels as though it were wedged into the script with a crowbar).

But Havis also has a sweet sense of character. There's not an unlikable soul in the play, and every person acts out of noble motives--one even storms off the stage crying out, "I have my own high ethics!" However noble the characters in this play might be, dramatizing Israeli politics is like baiting a rattlesnake, and the JCRC audience was quick to shake their rattles, although they were polite in doing so. One from the audience opined that the play was too hard on Peres. Another, speaking for a friend who was an Ethiopian Jew, passed along the criticism that the character of the government functionary was too forceful and his language too colorful. "That scene where he slams down the telephone..." the man complained, "My friend says no Ethiopian would do that." One even offered a halting apologia for Israel's decision to junk blood donated by Ethiopians.

Havis had responded politely to his critics, nodding and answering "Point taken." But here he shrugged and offered the most biting criticism of Israeli politics offered on the stage that night. "They had their reasons," Havis said, "but the insult was still there." And then he closed with another Jewish joke.

This is a season of duplication: Two Hamlets, two plays about Gertrude Stein, two productions of Waiting for Godot, and two productions of Never the Sinner. I missed the first version, produced several months ago by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company--by all reports it was quite good. Now the Actors Theater of Minnesota has mounted a production, and why not? Playwright Gregg Peterson has written about Leopold and Loeb, who are popular subjects for drama: Alfred Hitchcock's Rope borrowed details from the pair, as did the 1959 film Compulsion and 1992's Swoon.

It's a lurid enough story to support multiple takes: In 1924 two young Jewish boys with movie-star good looks, ferocious intellects, and moneyed families decided to kill a young boy--seemingly out of intellectual curiosity. They were defended by the redoubtable Clarence Darrow, who successfully saved them from the gallows--his extraordinary closing testimony is preserved almost in its entirety in Compulsion, and takes up the bulk of the second act of Never the Sinner.

But this play is more Swoon than anything else--the boys had a puzzling relationship in which criminal acts were traded for sexual favors, and playwright Peterson focuses on their peculiar romance. As acted out by Stephen Frethem and Nathan Surprenant in this production, there is poignancy to it. The boys are both appropriately dishy and aloof, but there is an appealing swagger to both, a confidence that draws eyes automatically to them, even if they are bonkers. We are not surprised to discover that Loeb received mash notes from adoring females while in prison. Hell, watching the play, I nearly penned him one myself.