Ethiopia to Broadway, via Jerusalem

In 1985, 10-year-old Yossi Vasser and his family set out on foot from the Ethiopian village of Uzava. The perilous 700-kilometer journey that ensued took them through the harsh Sudanese desert and eventually on to their spiritual home – Jerusalem.

Fast forward some 23 years and Vasser – now an articulate, seasoned actor in his early 30s – is again preparing for departure: this time he and an ensemble of Ethiopian Israeli actors are traveling to North America to bring a moving account of that courageous journey, One of a Kind – AndArgay, to the stage in both the US and Canada.

The play is a thought provoking and entertaining tale of a young boy (AndArgay) and his family who are swept up in the Ethiopian-Jewish immigration to Israel. The audience gets a glimpse into a unique way of life and bears witness to a family as it deals with a gut-wrenching quandary: whether to remain in the only home it has ever known, or to leave for a country, which for generations, has lived only in its folklore.

The journey that follows evidences a family’s struggle for identity, its dreams and the high price paid to realize those dreams.

One of a Kind – And Argay is a richly textured production, employing song, dance and drama. In a unique use of animation, Ethiopian drawings are projected onto a screen and act as an extension to both the cast and set. The human actors interact with their animated counterparts to create a vibrant and larger than life performance that entertains as much as it tells a story.

On the eve of the play’s North American tour, producer Howard Rypp and actor/writer Yossi Vasser talk to Israel 21C.

According to Rypp, founder of Nephesh Theater, the production company behind the play, One of a Kind – AndArgay is typical of the type of production that the group stages. “We set out to explore both Jewish themes and social issues, examining different groups within our society – Jews, Arabs, religious, secular, immigrants – the multicultural milieu that exists here, and the conflict and complexities that are born out of it.”

For Vasser, the play has personal significance – the inspiration for the story comes from his own family’s journey. “I realized how important it was for Ethiopian Jews to see the stories that people don’t talk about because of the painful memories that they invoke,” he says.

Over 4,000 people died during the journey: Vasser himself lost two brothers as well as his grandmother.

In Israel, the play has been a runaway success and has won several awards, including Best Play at the prestigious Haifa International Children’s Theater Festival. The production has been staged over 100 times in the past year alone, engaging audiences nationwide: an achievement in a country that roughly equates in size to the US state of New Jersey and with a population about the same as the state of Washington.

For both Vasser and Rypp, the appeal of the play is universal: both have no doubt that audiences in North America will find much to identify with.

“It’s a play for the entire family,” says Rypp. “Not only is there someone there for everyone to relate to – a grandmother, a parent, a child – but it’s also about family unity. Witnessing how this Ethiopian family travel and face extreme hardships together, the strength and the love that they give to one another is an inspiring, moving experience.”

For Vasser, it’s a universal tale about moving from place to place. “It’s a story for our times. So much of this century and the one before have been about people moving. Immigrants all face the same questions, the same issues,” says the actor. Vasser continues “It’s also unique in the way it’s told – there’s innocence to it – even though it’s a choreographed show – it’s very spiritual because it talks about person, place and God. Because of that, people feel a connection to the story.”

Vasser is unable to mask his enthusiasm for the upcoming tour: and one can’t quite blame him. It is indeed remarkable to think that a boy who set out by foot across an African desert is about to end up on a Broadway stage. But this time, thank goodness, he is traveling by plane.


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