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'We look for ways that our humanity transcends our Jewishness'

The Muslim-Jewish women’s show with the ‘chutzpah’ to connect

Now running, ‘More Courage’ is an interfaith exploration of bravery that bridges cultural gaps

Tiffany Mualem, Ayelette Robinson and Aneela Qureshi discuss script changes during a 
rehearsal break for 'More Courage.' (Courtesy JWT)
Tiffany Mualem, Ayelette Robinson and Aneela Qureshi discuss script changes during a rehearsal break for 'More Courage.' (Courtesy JWT)

LOS ANGELES — A son negotiating his father’s release in a Syrian kidnapping or the struggles of a transgender woman who was once a Hasidic rabbi may sound fictional, but the fact that they are true-to-life is precisely what makes a new Muslim-Jewish theatrical production in Los Angeles so compelling.

The vignettes, plays and poems comprising “More Courage” explore acts of bravery, great and small. The show is written, performed and produced by Muslims and Jews as part of a collaboration by Jewish Women’s Theatre and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Decidedly apolitical, the show promotes cross-cultural understanding by stressing universal concerns.

“Art can humanize us,” says JWT co-founder and artistic director Ronda Spinak. “Art that connects us helps deepen our resolve to find ways to live together.”

A salon-style production, “More Courage” premiered May 6 in Santa Monica at The Braid, JWT’s theater. Through May 22, it also travels to private homes in the greater Los Angeles area, as well as LA’s Pico-Union Project, and Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. A performance at the IMAN Cultural Center, the Iranian American Muslim Association of North America, is slated for May 11.

“We hope members of our audiences will hear stories they haven’t heard before, sit next to someone they haven’t met before and then talk to that person,” explains Maryam Saleemi, NewGround’s communications director. “Our collaboration with JWT is about communication. When we communicate, we see the number of similarities we have.”

Co-director Eve Brandstein, artistic director Ronda Spinak, and co-director Susan Morgenstern hard at work during rehearsal of 'More Courage.' (Courtesy JWT)
Co-director Eve Brandstein, artistic director Ronda Spinak, and co-director Susan Morgenstern hard at work during rehearsal of ‘More Courage.’ (Courtesy JWT)

Spanning dramas and comedies, the show’s content reveals diverse forms of courage. Although they contrast in motivation and action, the arc of the program is designed to illustrate how people of different faiths are more similar than different.

“Stories about courage connect us at a time when there is an urgency to respect diversity, find common ground and promote unity,” says co-producer Claudia Sobral.

‘When we communicate, we see the number of similarities we have’

She is also the director of a new documentary film entitled “Hotel Everest” that depicts connections forged by activists — one Israeli and one Palestinian.

As Sobral sees it, “‘More Courage’ is the antidote to polarized times we are living in. Audiences will relate to the shared experiences on stage, the ‘foreigner’ or the ‘other’ will become familiar.”

In the play, when an Israeli resident of Modi’in meets a Muslim neighbor from the Arab-Israeli village of Jaljulia, for example, she discovers they are each adoptive mothers. She becomes so focused on what the other woman is saying that she no longer notices the traditional hijab she is wearing. Their exchange, part of a “Neighbors Encounter” depicted by journalist Leora Eren Frucht, leads the Israeli to conclude shared life experiences outweigh religious labels.

Co-producers Sandy Savett and Julie Bram are proud of the work being done on 'More Courage,' which tells Jewish and Muslim stories about acts of bravery large and small. (Courtesy JWT)
Co-producers Sandy Savett and Julie Bram are proud of the work being done on ‘More Courage,’ which tells Jewish and Muslim stories about acts of bravery large and small. (Courtesy JWT)

“Better understanding is the reason ‘More Courage’ came to be,” says co-producer and JWT board member Julie Bram. “I love that we are being very courageous in the topics we’re including in the show.”

The show’s cast of Jewish and Muslim actors includes Ayelette Robinson (“I Am the Edge” and “Rules of Engagement”), Tiffany Mualem (“The Frame” and “Gang Girl”), Aneela Qureshi (“Anxiety of the Serpent”) Mark Jacobson, and comedienne Travina Springer, who discusses her conversion to Islam.

‘Better understanding is the reason ‘More Courage’ came to be’

JWT is not a political arts group, Spinak says. “We look for ways that our humanity transcends our Jewishness. Doing this in context of a Jewish-Muslim show gives insight into how we are alike as peoples. It starts the conversation.”

Although work on the project began a year ago, the team has been surprised by its relevance.

“We started last spring and I guess we just got lucky — sadly so,” Spinak says. “Exploring contemporary stories on stage means exploring how Jews live and interact in the world. It also means that we, as ‘the other’ for so many years, must understand all peoples.”

'More Courage' cast (left to right): Artistic director Ronda Spinak, Tiffany Mualem, Aneela Qureshi, Ayelette Robinson, Mark Jacobson, co-producer Susan Morgenstern. (Courtesy)
‘More Courage’ cast (left to right): Artistic director Ronda Spinak, Tiffany Mualem, Aneela Qureshi, Ayelette Robinson, Mark Jacobson, co-producer Susan Morgenstern. (Courtesy)

Conceived by Sandy Savett, a board member of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Women’s Theatre, the performance grew out of a program celebrating the end of Ramadan. Organized by NewGround and held at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the event included stories by Muslims and Jews.

“I met people who are just like me, except their religion is different,” says Savett, one of the show’s co-producers. “I’m hoping the similarities and sameness will hit our audiences like it hit me.”

Bram agrees. “Under the current political climate, minority cultures are being demonized,” she says. “Now is the time to build bridges and foster relationships between interfaith groups and this show does just that. Our audiences will get to know another faith in a very deep and profound way though remarkable true stories.”

Rain Pryor performing 'Fried Chicken and Latkes.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rain Pryor performing ‘Fried Chicken and Latkes.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

“More Courage” is directed by Susan Morgenstern, JWT’s producing director, and New York-based theater veteran Eve Brandstein, who also directed Rain Pryor in JWT’s production of “Fried Chicken & Latkes.”

In conjunction with the show, a sister exhibition curated by Georgia Freedman-Harvey, a board member of the Jewish Artists Initiative, explores bold and banal expressions of courage. These include everyday activities that can serve as stepping stones toward finding strength, such as women holding Torahs and Holocaust survivors raising families.

'Women Make Peace,' by Ehren Tool. (Courtesy)
‘Women Make Peace,’ by Ehren Tool. (Courtesy)

The More Courage Gallery Show also includes the poetry of Carolyn Kleefeld Campagna, photography by Bill Aron, paintings by Nasreen Haroon and Faran Kharal and mixed media works by Malka Nedivi and Michael Aschenbrenner.

A work entitled “Women Make Peace” by Ehren Tool reminds audiences how different cultures and faiths leverage courage to mend fences and create harmony to find common ground.

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