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 “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.
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.”
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.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.
All photos by Stan Barouh