Jewish-American playwright Nathaniel Sam Shapiro has been grappling with his Jewish identity since he was a tween. “I didn’t want to have my Bar-mitzvah because I thought that the words being said were so serious and I didn’t feel all of them personally,” he explains. “My family said, ‘This is what we do. This is what you have to go through. It’s doesn’t really matter how much you agree,’ which, I think, speaks to a more secular Jewish-American experience generally.” So when Shapiro decided to explore his internal identity conflict, he did it the way he knows how: by writing his newest play Diaspora, currently running at the Judson Theatre through December 23. And when choosing a director to be a partner in this exploration and questioning he chose Muslim-African Saheem Ali.
The two previously collaborated on Shapiro’s controversial examination of the teen Columbine shooters, The Erlkings—so neither is one to shy away from incendiary material. In Diaspora, the duo examines the Jewish spirit, its ties to ancient history and the land of Israel, and the struggle between tradition and assimilation. Set on the mountain of Masada, the play takes place in two simultaneous times: 73 AD, when the Jews of Masada were under siege by the Romans, and a 2017 Birthright trip hike up the same peak.
Here, Shapiro and Ali talk about their collaboration and why they lean in to the controversy:
Diaspora is billed as an exploration of the essence of the Jewish spirit and a questioning of who our heroes are. What made you want to tackle these giant questions?
Nathaniel Sam Shapiro: In some way, this is a project of my writing since I was a kid. I’ve always been interested in my own identity and my family’s identity and my family’s history, often in the context of a struggle with history and with tradition. I’m not at a point where I feel like I have all the answers on my take on everything, but art and theatre is a really fantastic way to muse over all these different issues.
Saheem Ali: I met Nathaniel a few years ago when he was a grad student at NYU and he’d written a play called The Erlkings, which was a dramatization of the last year of the two boys that committed the Columbine massacre. He wrote the play fashioning it from actual writings that the two boys did—their journals, their chatroom transcripts, their essays in school. I was really amazed and impressed by Nathaniel’s deep research-oriented way of delving into an idea and looking at something dark and interesting.
What was you way in to this particular work, even though you’d worked with Nathaniel before?
SA: I was raised Muslim; I actually grew up in Kenya. I moved to the States in ’98, and that’s the first time I started to meet Jewish people and know more about the Jewish faith. As a Muslim person growing up, you understand historical tensions between Muslim Arabs and Israeli Jews. I understand that theoretically; that’s not part of my personal identity. I felt like [this play] came from an intensive personal space. So my access to it was the theatricality of it.
As you mentioned, you two are no strangers to contentious theatre. What is the key to putting controversy onstage?
NSS: I do gravitate toward difficult subject matter because that’s what really excites me both intellectually and emotionally. It feels deeply urgent and crucial to express immediately.
SA: I think some of the controversy stems from the fact that Nathaniel has a very specific opinion about the Birthright trip and the loss of true reflection of the present and past. You have these kids who are, supposedly, going back to this land that has such a deep personal and historical significance to reflect, to absorb the deep history that’s within themselves. But, these are American kids who are truly unaware of what’s happening in the world. They come from a place of privilege and opportunity. They’re American kids, mostly white, going to this land where there are white and brown people and just unaware of the tensions there. Nathaniel also has a great opinion about the State of Israel and its existence and its relationship to the Jewish identity. My personal experience with the play is a deep respect for the power of religion, but real questions about the state and its reliance on the religion and what that means.
How do you prepare yourself for audience reaction when you call institutions—whether it’s Birthright or the State of Israel—into question?
NSS: I don’t know if there is really such a great way to prepare. It’s more about having a sense of resolve in the importance of the project. It’s not fun to make people pissed off or hate you, but I think sometimes participation in these conversations is too crucial not to speak up. For me, that’s what makes this play so urgent.
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