A kinder, gentler Baghdad

Written by | January 26, 2012

Local Jewish theater troupe explores 1920s multicultural Iraq at PSU
Time-travelling troupe Members of the Jewish Theatre Collaborative (from left) Doren Elias, Brian Allard, Aithans Shapira and Shuhe Hawkins perform at the Someday Lounge.

Time-travelling troupe Members of the Jewish Theatre Collaborative (from left) Doren Elias, Brian Allard, Aithans Shapira and Shuhe Hawkins perform at the Someday Lounge.

Sacha Reich speaks of “Christians, Muslims and Jews, sitting down together in debate as they’re forging their ideas of a new Iraq.”

But Reich isn’t describing the trials of modern-day Iraq. Rather, she’s referring to a time in history less than 80 years ago, as depicted in the upcoming Café Baghdad performance by the Portland-based Jewish Theatre Collaborative.

Reich is the founder and executive director of the collaborative, which has produced performances throughout the city since 2009.

“We hope to create a little bit of the smell, sound and taste of a Baghdad café, but we’re really taking people back in time to a very specific window into the Iraqi experience, around 1928,” Reich said.

Café Baghdad will show at Portland State’s Food for Thought Café Monday, Jan. 30. It will be followed by a conversation about the material, led by Dr. Michael Weingrad of PSU’s Judaic Studies program.

Reich described Café Baghdad as a collection of small moments, “more like snapshots” than a singular narrative. The work draws from memoirs and primary sources, building characters out of the content to paint a picture of life in the Middle Eastern city as its intellectuals worked to develop its identity.

“The primary eyes that we look through are those of a young man, Naim Kattan, who’s a memoirist,” Reich said. “His experiences range from an intellectual circle of young writers, passionately debating the future of Iraqi society over coffee in a café.”

Doren Elias, an actor involved with the collaborative, explained that the actors would each read several roles over the course of the performance, and that some would take turns reading the narration.

“It is a piece that is not just one idea. It’s several ideas and conversations that are mixed into the whole evening,” Elias said.

The performance will also feature actors Brian Allard, Shuhe Hawkins and Aithan Shapira, each of whom takes on more than one role. In addition to the collaborative’s work, the feature is co-sponsored by PSU’s Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and the Middle East Studies Center.

Although the Jewish Theatre Collaborative produces a range of stage works, including full productions, Café Baghdad will actually be presented as a “stage reading with suggestive costuming,” according to Reich. The stage reading will have a more informal environment, leaving more to the audience’s imagination.

“The very cool thing about stage readings is that the audience fills in the rest,” Reich said. “We’ve had people come back, and what they remember is like a full production because the imagination does that.”

Café Baghdad depicts an Iraq that would be scarcely recognizable nowadays. Roughly 80,000 residents of Baghdad were Jewish in descent during the 1920s, making them a sizable minority of the largely Arab city, according to Reich.

“In the ’20s, Iraq was a republic, and it was on the cusp of redefining itself and how its minorities would interface,” she said.

Elias, who admitted to knowing little about Baghdad’s Jewish history, referred to his new-found understanding of the time period as “poetic and passionate.”

“The conversation between the cultures is a novel thing. I think most people assume that there’s a great separation between these people,” he said. “It’s interesting to realize that at one time they were incredibly bonded and felt collected as one before they started to separate.”

The Jewish Theatre Collaborative gives performances while creating community and conversation through shared stories. The conversation is an important element to the collaborative, one that sets it apart from many other theater companies.

“Sacha collaborates with social groups and invites them to be a part of the conversation,” Elias explained. “And every show that she does has a very lively component of discourse after the show about the subject matter and related subjects.”

“We always create an opportunity to start unpacking the material,” Reich said.

Elias said that Café Baghdad is an inclusive work and acknowledged the subject matter’s particular significance to the Jewish community.

“It wrestles with issues that are close to the Jewish culture’s heart, certainly the history of their language and the history of being in Iraq for quite a long time and the legitimacy of the Jewish people within the region,” he said.

Reich believes the piece provides a context that is crucial to understanding a world she described as “unimaginable” today, after so many decades of conflict in the Middle East between Arab and Jew.

“Before the 1930s, things were radically different,” she said. “Things were not uncomplicated, but the Jews and Arabs had peacefully coexisted, and in the case of Iraq, for 2,500 years.”

Elias, who has worked with many theater companies and even runs a company of his own, believes that Reich’s unique approach to theatre reaches beyond entertainment and could very well inspire people to learn more.

“So much of what theater can tend to be is just serving an entertainment idea and not really having more resonance,” Elias said. “The Jewish Theatre Collaborative is based on a model that really is wrestling with the issues if not searching for the answer. They go the extra step of making the theater piece the launching point for the discussion.”

The Jewish Theatre Collaborative, Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and Middle East Studies Center present
Café Baghdad
Monday, Jan. 307 p.m.
Smith Memorial Student Union,
Food for Thought Café
PSU students free with ID;
$10 general admission
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