Jewish and Muslim artists summon ‘Courage’ together

May 3, 2017
In “More Courage,” Ayelette Robinson (left) portrays a transgender woman who came out after being ordained as a Chasidic rabbi, and Travina Springer (right) details her conversion to Islam. Left photo by Kevin McIntyre. Right photo by Antar Hanif


On a hot late-April afternoon, five actors — four women and one man — assembled onstage for rehearsal inside The Braid, an intimate venue in the Bergamot Arts District of Santa Monica and home to Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) since 2015.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, the actors launched into a dramatic reading of “Stillness,” an original work by the Egyptian-born Muslim poet Yasmin Mogahed. It’s about the serenity a new dawn brings.

The actors alternated lines, including the final verse: “Maybe that’s what’s so beautiful about this time of day: the stillness. And the hope that maybe this day will be different.”

Mogahed’s poem will open JWT’s new show, “More Courage,” a collection of poems, plays and stories performed and written by Muslim and Jewish artists, a mix meant to offer hope for a future of peaceful co-existence. It opens at The Braid on May 6.

Co-directed by JWT veterans Eve Brandstein and Susan Morgenstern, “More Courage” will run approximately 65 minutes. Its content will touch on topics like forbidden love between Arabs and Jews, the trials of being the first Jewish Miss America and a woman’s personal account of converting to Islam.

“Having courage has nothing to do with your religion or country of origin or ethnic background,” said Ronda Spinak, JWT’s artistic director. “What we want to do is to take a universal subject and offer up stories by Jews and Muslims, so that whether you’re a Jew or Muslim in the audience, you’ll identify with the stories.”

JWT, a nonprofit, independent theater company, was created with the goal of providing Jewish women a voice onstage. Spinak and two former colleagues founded it, sketching plans on napkins in 2007. Now, its salon-style shows draw more than 13,000 audience members annually at schools, synagogues, museums, art galleries, private homes, even prisons.

To add Muslim voices to “More Courage,” JWT is collaborating with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a Los Angeles-based community-building organization that encourages Jewish and Muslim collaboration. Its leadership, made up of Jews and Muslims, has been instrumental in recommending stories, books, songs and poems — like Mogahed’s — from Muslim artists to be considered for inclusion in the show, Spinak said.

Maryam Saleemi, NewGround’s communication and development manager, told the Journal that her organization was reaching out to Muslim actors to audition for the JWT production and setting up for a performance of “More Courage” at the IMAN Cultural Center, a mosque in Culver City.

Saleemi, who is a co-producer of the show, said she hopes it encourages people to share stories and come together in solidarity during what she sees as a trying time for both Jews and Muslims.

“I think that in this current time, with people living in fear and suspicion due to a rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it’s important to inspire our communities and to hear stories of courage,” she said. “It can’t just be stories of Muslims standing up for Muslims or just Jews standing up for Jews. It’s important to hear many different stories.”

One of the stories that Saleemi helped bring to JWT’s attention is that of Travina Springer, an African-American Muslim actress and comedian.

Springer, who was raised Baptist, visited a mosque with a Muslim friend and a list of questions after devouring a Malcolm X biography in college. Springer’s turn in “More Courage” details that initial interest, her conversion ceremony inside a parked car, her informing her Baptist parents at an Olive Garden (“because that’s where you go in Florida”) and the realities of being a Muslim woman in contemporary America.

“What I do with humor is expose people to different images, alternative narratives to what it means to be Muslim and Muslim in America,” she said. “I don’t think people even think of Black people as Muslims. They just think of foreigners, and that being American is something that’s added on to that identity. But I am American and that is very much what my identity is, while Islam is my faith.”

In a piece titled “Kosher Rebel,” Los Angeles-based actor Ayelette Robinson will play a real-life figure, Abby Stein, a transgender woman who came out after being ordained as a Chasidic rabbi in her ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community. Julie Bram, a JWT producer for the show, read an interview with Stein in Haaretz and adapted Stein’s own words, with Spinak’s help, into a dramatic essay.

Robinson, who grew up Modern Orthodox in a Boston-area suburb, was raised worlds apart from Stein, who, as the piece illustrates, “never saw a movie, went to a Broadway show or listened to music.” However, Robinson, not entirely unlike Stein, drifted away from Orthodox life as a teen and now identifies as secular, which fractured relationships with family members. She identified with Stein’s courageous journey toward a more truthful life.

“What I really connect to is the fact that [Stein] realized being true to yourself, as cliché as that might sound, is better than anything else in the world, and despite all of the pain of losing connections to family or friends, nothing can dull that pain of living life less than whole,” she said. “It is so much better to just be who you are. Giving that up in exchange for keeping those relationships is really just deafening and paralyzing, and it’s hard to balance.”

A “More Courage” art exhibition, curated by Georgia Freedman-Harvey, an independent curator who sits on the board of the Jewish Artists Initiative, will accompany the show. The exhibition, which will be housed at The Braid, is composed of paintings, framed poems, ceramics, photography and mixed-media works from Muslim and Jewish artists, including renowned Jewish photographer Bill Aron.

“From the photograph of women joyously holding Torahs to the painting portraying the daily act of praying in a mosque, the exhibit touches on the many facets of courage, and what it takes to summon up the strength to express courage,” Freedman-Harvey wrote in her curatorial statement.

Along with Springer and Robinson, the cast of “More Courage” includes Mark Jacobson, Tiffany Mualem and Aneela Qureshi. On May 11, the IMAN Cultural Center will host the show.

“More Courage” opens at The Braid on May 6. Including Springer and Robinson, the cast includes Mark Jacobson, Tiffany Mualem and Aneela Qureshi. On May 11, the IMAN Cultural Center will host the show. For additional information, visit jewishwomenstheatre.org.

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