Desert awak­en­ing

The spark be­hind the Broad­way ver­sion of ‘The Band’s Visit’

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By STEVE NORTH

There’s a long and poignant story be­hind the T-shirt that Ari’el Stachel of­ten wears these days. It says, in He­brew let­ters, Totzeret Te­man (Prod­uct of Ye­men). The un­ex­pected jux­ta­po­si­tion of two cul­tures, Is­raeli and Arab, is as fas­ci­nat­ing and com­plex as Stachel him­self.

Stachel, 26, is an ac­tor and singer mak­ing his Broad­way de­but in The Band’s Visit, a charm­ing new mu­si­cal star­ring Tony Shal­houb (Monk) and the ris­ing star Ka­t­rina Lenk. The play is based on the 2007 award-win­ning Is­raeli movie about an Egyp­tian po­lice band stranded in a tiny (and fic­tional) Is­raeli vil­lage in the Negev Desert.

Stachel plays Haled, an Egyp­tian trum­peter, who like his fel­low band mates qui­etly con­nects with his Jewish hosts dur­ing a long night of eat­ing, flirt­ing, roller skat­ing (at a disco, no less) and, of course, mu­sic mak­ing.

The show’s theme of how Arabs and Jews come to terms with each other is per­haps not nearly as dra­matic as Stachel’s own jour­ney of com­ing to terms with him­self. The tall, dark-skinned per­former spent nearly a third of his life telling peo­ple he was half African-Amer­i­can.

In fact, Stachel is the Cal­i­for­nia-born son of an Is­raeli-Ye­meni fa­ther and an Ashke­nazi mother from New York.

“My fa­ther’s par­ents came to Is­rael in the 1950s,” he ex­plains, “and my dad was born in an im­mi­grant ab­sorp­tion tent city near the town of Hadera. When he was 24, he fol­lowed a woman he’d met on a kib­butz to the US and ended up in Cal­i­for­nia, where he met my mom while they were Is­raeli folk danc­ing. He was the only one in his fam­ily to leave Is­rael.”

The fam­ily name in Ye­men was Garama, but be­came Ye­shayahu in Is­rael. Stachel’s par­ents di­vorced when he was young, and he opted to use his mother’s Ashke­nazi last name.

“It was just one of the many ways I avoided my iden­tity,” he says rue­fully.

That strug­gle be­gan at a Jewish day school in Berke­ley, where Stachel was raised.

“In third grade, some­one told me I was too black to be Jewish,” he re­calls. “In sixth grade, I switched to a pub­lic school, with maybe nine stu­dents of color there out of 900. I started to see that I was per­ceived as black, so I re-cre­ated my iden­tity as an African-Amer­i­can; all my friends were black.”

Stachel smiles as he re­called vis­it­ing his best buddy’s home, where “his grand­mother would treat me like a black kid, cook­ing me soul food. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a com­mu­nity with­out any reser­va­tion. I felt most com­fort­able and ac­cepted through this African-Amer­i­can grand­mother.”

By high school, says Stachel, “I started avoid­ing be­ing seen in pub­lic with my fa­ther. I didn’t want to be seen with some­body who looked like an Arab.”

Only in pri­vate did the con­flicted teenager em­brace his her­itage, lis­ten­ing to the Is­raeli-Ye­meni singer Tsion Golan, eat­ing his fa­vorite food – the Ye­meni Is­raeli pas­try jach­nun – and of­ten vis­it­ing his fam­ily in Is­rael for a month at a time. As a baby, his first word was balon, He­brew for bal­loon.

“He­brew was spo­ken ex­clu­sively in my fa­ther’s house – he only spoke with his new part­ner in He­brew, which is where my ‘flu­ent-ad­ja­cency’ comes from,” Stachel says.

Stachel didn’t have a bar mitzva in Cal­i­for­nia, but “I was in Is­rael dur­ing the last week of my 13th year, and my un­cle, who is more re­li­gious, was dis­mayed. He set up a Ye­meni bar mitzva for me four days be­fore I turned 14.”

The deep love Stachel had for his fam­ily made his con­tin­u­ing dis­avowal of their back­grounds im­pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile.

“I knew I wanted to do some­thing pub­lic, either as an NBA player or an ac­tor,” he says, “and I re­mem­ber look­ing at my­self in the mir­ror in eighth grade and think­ing, ‘How on earth can I do that and still pre­tend that I’m not Mid­dle Eastern?’”

At 15, re­al­iz­ing he wouldn’t make it in pro bas­ket­ball, Stachel’s mother urged him to try out for his school mu­si­cal.

“I got the role, in which I sang ‘Happy Birth­day’ to a pear,” he re­calls, “and my mom said, ‘You know, you have a voice!’” Stachel switched to an arts school, honed his tal­ents, and moved to New York in 2009 to at­tend New York Univer­sity’s mu­si­cal theater pro­gram.

The wa­ter­shed mo­ment in both Stachel’s per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives came when he first read the script for The Band’s Visit in 2015, which opened off-Broad­way the fol­low­ing year. Read­ing the char­ac­ter of Haled, the hand­some Egyp­tian mu­si­cian who is ob­sessed with the jazz trum­peter Chet Baker, “I knew im­me­di­ately that it needed to be my role.”

It took the show’s cre­ative team seven auditions by Stachel over nine months to ar­rive at the same con­clu­sion. There were mo­ments of deep doubt and frus­tra­tion, the ac­tor ac­knowl­edges.

“Look­ing at my par­ents, see­ing where I come from, there was this feel­ing that there’s no way my dreams are ever go­ing to come true,” he says. “But over the course of those nine months, I started to be­lieve in my­self, and by the fi­nal au­di­tion it was just mine.”

The At­lantic Theater Com­pany’s off-Broad­way pro­duc­tion of The Band’s Visit, with mu­sic and lyrics by David Yazbek (Women on the Verge of a Ner­vous Break­down, The Full Monty) and book by Ita­mar Moses (an­other son of Is­raeli par­ents), earned rave re­views. And for Stachel, who gar­nered Drama Desk and Lu­cille Lor­tel Award nom­i­na­tions for best fea­tured ac­tor in a mu­si­cal, it changed ev­ery­thing.

“The role al­lows me to ex­ist as my­self, proudly, as a Mid­dle Eastern per­son,” Stachel says. “For eight or 10 years of my life, I couldn’t tell peo­ple I was of Ye­meni de­scent with­out break­ing into a cold sweat. Now, be­cause of the vis­i­bil­ity of this role, be­cause peo­ple are ac­cept­ing us with open arms, I can be my­self. I get to wear this base­ball cap [off­stage] which says ‘shalom, salaam, and peace.’ I feel like I strad­dle all these iden­ti­ties.”

Dur­ing weeks of pre­views on Broad­way, Stachel said the play has at­tracted sold-out au­di­ences and in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion.

“I’m able to con­nect with young kids in the Mid­dle East on Twit­ter and In­sta­gram who tell me they’re feel­ing rep­re­sented,” he said. “A Pales­tinian girl came to the show, ran past the gate af­ter­wards and hugged me, say­ing the same thing.”

As for the fu­ture of this Ye­meni-Ashke­nazi-Jewish-Cal­i­for­nian-Amer­i­can ac­tor, Stachel is ea­ger to tell his per­sonal story, and those of oth­ers.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence of the world was shaped very much by the way I looked,” he says. “Now I feel that hav­ing this dis­tinc­tive iden­tity gives me an op­por­tu­nity to shed light on the di­verse lives of Mid­dle Eastern peo­ple. I feel like I have a birthright to play these roles.” – JTA

(Matt Mur­phy)

ARI’EL STACHEL (right) plays match­maker to two shy Is­raelis, played by Rachel Prather and Etai Ben­son, in ‘The Band’s Visit.’

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