Play examines ‘the fight to be what one is’

In 1962 Franco-era Madrid, an Israeli scholar is caught stealing.

What surprises the Spanish archives director who catches him is what exactly he’s stealing. It is a single, seemingly insignificant file on a long-dead Inquisition priest named Andrès Gonzáles. Despite questioning, the Israeli stands mute, never explaining why he took the file.

So begins “Conviction,” a one-man play adapted and performed by Ami Dayan. It is at The Cleveland Play House’s FusionFest new works festival April 15-17.

The secret in the Gonzáles file, the archives director soon learns, is that the priest descends from a converso (Spanish Jew forced to convert to Christianity to avoid death) and that he concealed a deeply passionate relationship with his Jewish wife.

“It’s a thriller, but the heart (of the play) has to do with a poetic and spiritual journey in regard to oneself, the fight to be what one is,” says writer- director-actor Dayan, 48, speaking to the CJN by phone while visiting family in Tel Aviv.
In “Conviction,” which is based on a true story, Gonzáles reconnects with his own Jewish identity as he develops a sensitivity to Catholics’ poor treatment of conversos. “This becomes a major force in (Gonzáles’s) decision to risk everything, basically to do a tikkun olam (repair of the world),” Dayan explains. “It’s a powerful love story, but it’s tragic because of the choices characters had to make” to help the larger Jewish community rather than themselves.

“Conviction” jumps back and forth between the 15th-century Inquisition story and the 1960s modern investigation of the archives theft. In the Play House performance, Dayan plays all the roles. “Conviction” was written in Hebrew by Israeli Oren Neeman. Dayan loved the play when he first saw it in Israel in 1996. “It moved me greatly,” he recalls. “It was about oppression, finding one’s roots, and self-fulfillment at all costs.”

While living in Colorado in 2007, Dayan searched for a strong one-man show to develop and tour; he remembered “Conviction.” With co-adaptor Mark J. Williams and co-director Jeremy Cole, he created an English-language version of the script, which he honed through workshops and performances over several years. Dayan primarily performs “Conviction” as a one-man show, although he has also developed a three-person version of the play.

The complex issues of community, oppression, assimilation and identity in the play have struck a chord with other minority groups in addition to Jews, Dayan explains. In post-show discussions, he has heard from members of the Latino community who strongly identified with the way 15th-century Jews were forced to assimilate into Spanish culture. Members of the GLBT community have noted parallels between the forbidden relationship in “Conviction” and their own struggle to achieve legally recognized marriages.

“When the particular becomes universal, that’s a successful adaptation,” Dayan says.

In addition to workshops and performances in Dayan’s home of Boulder, Colo., he has toured the show to New York City, the Rubicon International Theatre Festival in California, and a festival of Israeli plays at Victory Gardens in Chicago.

A self-described kibbutznik, native Israeli Dayan didn’t find himself attracted to theater until after completing his compulsory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces. “I thought I would do my ‘world tour,’ to South America or something,” he jokes, referring to the common practice of young Israeli adults taking extensive foreign vacations after the army and before college. But an introductory Israeli acting class tapped into something he didn’t expect.

“Before, anything I did, I could practice and get good at,” he recalls. But acting wasn’t so easily mastered. The challenge enticed him, and he remained in Israel, pursuing intensive study at the Israeli School of Drama.

“It was all day. I had no life,” Dayan says. “But I knew how to work hard from the kibbutz!”

He went on to study acting with masters in the U.S., England and France. As he explored dramatic literature, he realized there were no Hebrew translations of many of his favorite Western plays, like Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” So, he translated, adapted and directed his own.

Soon directing became “more enthralling” than acting to Dayan, and he worked primarily as a director in Israel. Dayan hadn’t acted for eight years until he and his wife Michal moved to the U.S. in 1999. The pair and their two children landed in Boulder so Michal could pursue a career as a yoga instructor studying with yogi Richard Freeman.

In the U.S., Dayan has adapted several Israeli works into English-language versions “not from a writing standpoint, but because they were something I wanted to direct,” he explains. “It’s always about a good story. There’s got to be a visceral response. I’m eager to do material that has some social or political relevance.”

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