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Is There A Theatrical Definition Of ‘Never Again’?

Honey Brown Eyes
By Stefanie Zadravec, directed by Jessica Lefkow
October 22-November 30, 2008
Theater J, Washington D.C. JCC
1529 16th Street, NW, Washington

“Some of our most exquisite murders,” Alfred Hitchcock famously observed, “have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like [at] the kitchen table.” Norman Bates’ murder of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho” is particularly terrifying because it is a domestic space. Janet Leigh, the actress who played Crane, even feared taking showers after seeing the murder scene on screen. “It’s not hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity,” she said in interviews. “Honest to gosh, it’s true.”


The violence and killing in Stefanie Zadravec’s “Honey Brown Eyes,” currently in its world premiere at Theater J at the Washington D.C. JCC, center around the kitchen table and carry a dark tenderness that is perhaps worthy of Hitchcock himself. Just as it is difficult to judge Bates in “Psycho” – can he be evil if he is so mentally deranged? – Zadravec’s killer, Dragan (Alexander Strain), is the confused sort of young man you would expect him to be: he shoots with the gun he is handed with his military fatigues, and he plays G-d by “mercifully” executing a mother, so that his comrades will not torture and rape her later.



Maia DeSanti as Alma and Alexander Strain as Dragan


The “Honey Brown Eyes” is Alma (Maia DeSanti), a Bosnian-Muslim woman in her 30s, whose childhood beauty and eyes, which earned her nickname, have long since dimmed due to age and suffering. Alma’s husband, as she tells the Serbian soldier who breaks into her kitchen and takes her hostage, has been shot and thrown off a bridge. In between assaults and threats of rape from Dragan, the 20-something Bosnian-Serb soldier, Alma reveals that she has not yet been able to retrieve her husband’s body and bury it. But however traumatized, she knows enough to tell Dragan that she has a son and to deny having a 12-year-old daughter, as his list of names tells him. Alma knows enough to suspect the Serbian officials’ designs in rounding up teen-aged girls.

Alma meets a tragic end – even a connection with Dragan through her younger brother Denis (Joel Reuben Ganz) cannot save her from his gun – and her daughter Zlata (Taylor Dawson) cautiously emerges from her hiding place only to be caught by Dragan. While all seems lost, Denis flees the Serbian soldiers and hides in the apartment (arriving through the kitchen) of Jovanka (Barbara Rappaport), a 60-something Bosnian woman who teaches him how to live even as gunfire keeps erupting outside her windows. The play ends ambiguously, but viewers can choose a happy ending if they so desire.



Barbara Rappaport as Jovanka and Joel Reuben Ganz as Denis


The war which broke out in the early 90s in the Balkans is not a conflict where we would expect to find Jewish characters, and the closest thing in the play is probably Jovanka’s resemblance to a Brooklyn bubbie in her matter-of-fact approach to her life in a war zone and her insistence on feeding her guest. Indeed, Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, calls the play an “unlikely” choice for the Jewish theater, though he also insists it is an “inevitable” one. “Unlikely because we’ve never been to the Balkans before as a company,” Roth wrote on the Theater J website. “We’ve gone to different parts of Europe to trigger memory of a different genocide. Which is, of course, what also makes this inevitable.”

According to Roth, the play taps into a different sort of Holocaust memory, since the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened amidst the outbreak of war in the Balkans in 1992. “Speaker after speaker reminded those assembled that it was a collective responsibility, as survivors and their descendents, as bystanders and war veterans, to never succumb to the moral failing of passivity,” Roth wrote. “‘When you see genocide, say something; do something.’ We have not eradicated atrocity in our times.”



Barbara Rappaport as Jovanka and Joel Reuben Ganz as Denis


The Holocaust Museum’s mandate should clearly be tied to the important question of whether commitment to Holocaust memory necessitates responsibility in all other genocides. But even if Jews should be leading the way in fighting genocides of all kinds, is there anything Jewish about a play about war in the Balkans just because it appears at a Jewish theater? Would the Jewish angle even occur to us if it appeared at a theater that was not affiliated with a Jewish Community Center?

If I am honest, I was skeptical about the play’s relevance to a Jewish audience before seeing it. I felt the same way after seeing it, until I realized that it felt particularly pertinent while I was sitting in the audience. In the Balkans, we see innocent and unarmed Muslims being brutally attacked just for being Muslims, an unjust religious persecution with which Jews can definitely identify. And several of the exchanges in the brilliant dialogue rang so true that they transcended the war in the Balkans and carried universal appeal. In one exchange, Denis, who is aware that neither his sister nor his brother-in-law has been killed, tells Jovanka about how he blames himself for leaving Alma and her husband and joining the war. Denis, who is depressed to the point of suicide, says:

Denis: I am not a Muslim, a father, a husband. I am nothing.
Jovanka: You’re alive.
Denis: And that is all.
Jovanka takes the pot off the stove and serves Denis.
Jovanka: Eat. It’s amazing what a little salt will do.
Denis: You are a good Bosnian.
Jovanka: And also a Serb.

Conflict has a way of bringing people together, and one can imagine discussions like this one in concentration camps where Jews had to come to grips with being forced away from their families and celebrating being alive even if they could not help but prefer to be dead. Denis and Jovanka have little trouble focusing on their similarities (both hungry, lonely, deserted, and fed up with war), rather than their differences as Serbs or Muslims.

One play is not going to offer Jews and Muslims a roadmap for finding common ground and overcoming differences. But without sounding naïve and starry-eyed, I think I am on solid ground in saying that one play in one Jewish theater can lead to more artistic explorations of this kind. Even if we cannot all agree on what precisely is the Jewish obligation in Darfur or in the other genocides across the globe – and that is a question we must iron out in places other than art columns – it is important to engage this question in our museums and theaters. Theater J should be commended for going out to the Balkans for the first time, as Roth explained, and for bringing its audience along for the ride. And who knows, perhaps if theaters can help come up with a great definition for “Never More,” maybe it will be convertible to the realm of international affairs and diplomacy. 
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

All photos by Stan Barouh

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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