It’s been 32 years since the first wave of Ethiopian immigration took place in 1984, with the Operation Moses airlift from Sudan.
“The people then were people who had just come off the plane,” said Moshe Malka, director of the Ethiopian-Israeli Theater Ensemble, who has directed Ethiopian-themed plays and productions for nearly 20 years. “Now I work with people who barely know how to speak Amharic.”
The Ethiopian community is still dealing with a considerable number of issues, and its members find ways to broadcast their problems and successes to the larger Israeli population.
Malka’s theater group will launch its latest production, during the seventh Hullageb Festival in Jerusalem, December 15-21, an annual celebration of Ethiopian music, dance and theater that showcases visiting and local Ethiopian artists. It’s one of those events that welcomes outsiders as well as insiders.
“Refugees” is an urban legend of a meeting between worlds and identities that collapse during a nightmarish night in Tel Aviv. The play tells the tale of four refugees from Eritrea who are being chased by the police and find refuge in the home of Avi, a single Israeli man who is undergoing a heartbreaking development.
It’s a report on the current African refugee situation in Israeli, blended with the ongoing story of Ethiopian Israeli Jews and the issues of identity, racism, belonging and nationality, said Malka.
The script, in Hebrew, Tigris and some English, is translated to all Hebrew onscreen. There’s a conversation with Malka and a Q&A after the show, to allow everyone to process what they’ve just watched.
All of Malka’s plays, including “Refugees,” are written by him after a process of improvisation with his actors, and it’s a process that can continue up until the last moments of rehearsal.
“I’m not Ethiopian, and I look at everything from the outside,” said Malka. “It’s a more universal lens.”
Malka said he likes to mix up identities, to create “a kind of neutral,” he said. “I like to make something both clear and unclear, that allows to link with the rest of the world, and to break down barriers.”
He did an acting workshop and short play with the first Ethiopians he worked with nearly 17 years ago, and credits his “strange way of looking at everything” with allowing him to offer an angle that takes the Ethiopian actors out of their “deep place and do things that are more sharp and precise.”
“The use of identity in this theater is what engages us all the time,” said Malka. “What are you — Israeli, Ethiopian, artist, actor –how do you identify yourself. And that’s what’s important to the Ethiopian actors now, being Israeli.”
This year’s Hullageb Festival lineup also includes a performance from Ethiopian artist Aster Aweke, who’s known as the Aretha Franklin of Ethiopia, a night of Afro soul with AvevA, and a long list of other Ethiopian artists.
Performances for the Hullageb Festival, which is supported by the Confederation House, the Bracha Foundation, the Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Jerusalem Municipality and departments of the Foreign Ministry, will take place at the Jerusalem Theater, the Confederation House, the Leo Model Hall in the Gerard Behar Theater, the First Station and the Yellow Submarine.
Performances of “Refugees” will be held on December 20, 21, 22, 28, January 3 and January 11. Tickets are available through Bimot and more information can be found on the Confederation House Facebook page.