Mosaic Theater Company’s mission expresses a commitment to powerful, transformational, and socially relevant art. That certainly describes The Promised Land, a play about East African refugees in Israel, which marks the third installment in the company’s Voices from a Changing Middle East festival.
What could be more relevant and begging of a solution than the refugee crisis, in which tens of millions of individuals have been displaced from their homes?
The Promised Land more specifically concerns some 50,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea—among millions who fled those still war-torn lands—who came to Israel, many illegally.
The direction makes the mind think deeply and the heart be troubled.
The play was co-written by Israeli dramatists Shachar Pinkas and Shai Pitovsky for the Habimah Theater—Israel’s national theater—and produced there with an all-Israeli cast of its younger professional ensemble.
The Promised Land (called Eretz Chadasha, or the New Land, in the original) certainly makes us feel the anguish of the refugees—from the terrible escape from their homelands, to the frequent interrogations, prohibition on working, and threat of deportation that await them. Even the well-meaning woman running a charity giving free clothing to the refugees can’t help being rigidly literal.
The play is certainly moving and thought provoking, if also relentlessly grim. It gets across the point loud and clear that “no one chooses to be a refugee.” Plus, as director Michel Bloom has pointed out, the specific focus of The Promised Land on Israel makes sense, in that the country was founded by refugees and was among the first signatories to the United Nations of Refugees. Not to mention that Judaism emphatically calls for empathy toward strangers.
The Promised Land’s weakness lies in being too polemical. Even given its documentary nature, it might have been more-nuanced. The only responses to the influx of refugees are those of a racist mayor and another citizen who declares, “We don’t have enough problems in Israel. Why did they come to Israel?”
There is also mention of human rights groups who protest on behalf of the refugees.
But the situation is complex, and we might hear more from the voices of ordinary citizens, even the ambivalence that must be their province. More context might also have been given of Israel’s security and other problems.
That said, the Mosaic production—with its diverse cast of locally based actors– is wonderful and memorable. The direction makes the mind think deeply and the heart be troubled.
It’s “risky” to single out individual members of an ensemble cast, especially when each portrays several characters. So I won’t. Suffice it to say that director Bloom has chosen well. The cast of Audrey Bertaux, Aaron Bliden, Felipe Cabezas, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Awa Sal Becka, Brayden Simpson, and Kathryn Tkel is totally convincing.
Andrew Cissna is the set and lighting designer, effectively using videos that appear against bars. Marci Rodgers is costume designer, and Eric Shimelonis is the composed and sound designer.
Advisory: Ages 12 and up.
Running Time: 70 minutes, without an intermission.
The Promised Land runs though February 28, 2016 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Rehearsal Hall, 641 D Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. It then goes on our at area universities from February 29-March 6. You can purchase tickets online by clicking here or by phone, 202-399-7993.
Post-show discussions will follow nearly every performance of The Promised Land. Check mosaictheter.org/voices-festival-events for regular updates. Check mosaictheter.org/voices-festival-events for regular updates.
Coming next in the Festival—an exhibition of Israeli, Arab, and American artists from across the country and around the world—is After the War, by Israeli playwright Moti Lerner, beginning March 24, 2016.