Naomi Ackerman: `Art is a good way to social change.'
NAOMI Ackerman stands tall. Bright-eyed and alone on stage, she seems at once powerful and vulnerable. Both as an actress who transcends worlds beyond Israel, and as a woman whose heart embraces the family of mankind.
As U.S.-born, Tel Aviv-based Naomi unfolded her dramatic monologue on domestic violence — titled Flowers Aren't Enough — at the J.S.S. Auditorium on May 13 and the St. Joseph's Evening College auditorium the next day, she touched a universal chord across continents, generations, and cultures. With 600 shows in Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., India, and other locations behind her, it unravels the dilemma of young Michal, an ex-officer in the Israeli Army, the daughter of a wealthy family, a well-schooled woman, who finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship.
The crescendo and diminuendo of Naomi's powerhouse performance of Michal's story found resonance in every home where hands have been raised in violence, where voices have grown shrill with abuse, where relationships withstand heavy artillery. Originally commissioned by the Israeli Ministry of Welfare five years ago, based on encounters with the inmates of a women's shelter, the theatrical piece researched, scripted and performed by Naomi, has the impact of a blow to the solar plexus.
Naomi, a graduate of the Nissan Native Acting Studio, encompasses dimensions beyond the stage, beyond musicals, films, and television. For, she is a trained clown, street performer, and stilt-walker. And a mediator and conflict resolution specialist, who has held workshops for the Peres Centre for Peace.
"I believe strongly that art is a good way to social change," confesses Naomi. "I feel I've brought about more change with socially-charged productions than through the rallies I marched in when I was younger."
Laughing, she adds: "In my frustrated days at not winning an Oscar or not living in Hollywood, I try to remember that what I do is what I believe in."
On earlier trips to India, Naomi attended the Mumbai International Film Festival with a documentary film about the Arab-Jewish group of actors she performed with. In January 2003, she performed for sex workers in Mumbai and a rural women's human rights group in Pune, an experience that made her weep. On her recent three-week tour through Baroda, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Pondicherry, and Bangalore, sponsored by the Consulate-General of Israel in Mumbai and Chennai's Prakriti Foundation, her audience included hundreds of women sub-inspectors and garment factory workers in Chennai, women's groups and NGOs in Bangalore, besides theatre buffs.
Every hour-long show of Flowers Aren't Enough extends into a live exchange with the audience. In Chennai, a well-heeled woman spoke of her lawyer husband who tried to poison her while he plied her with diamonds and expensive cars, until she opted out to set up support centres for abused women. In a village outside Auroville, a woman wanted to tell her husband to stop beating her. Though empowered by the Women's Federation for Human Rights, she was scared. So, four of her women friends stood behind her as she spoke her mind. And he listened.
"That's so inspiring!" comments Naomi during an interview at The Park hotel in Bangalore, interlaced with both laughter and tears. "I would consider her one of my role models. More than any big writer or actress. Talking about women's issues in this village gave me a warm sensation of sisterhood. Perhaps it's also the fact that I'm pregnant. Everything is against them, yet somehow they're positive and happy. I'd like to incorporate some of their simplicity into my life. That encounter moved me to my core."
Excerpts from the conversation with Naomi Ackerman:
Do you still see your monologue as a work in progress because of the later exchanges?
Originally, the show was just 20 minutes long. For the first 50 shows, I was stretching it to make it deeper and wider. Often, someone sheds light on a dark area. I have the freedom to change it as I perform because I wrote it. I'm not less open now, but less quick to incorporate material into the show.
Did your work as a mediator help?
Being a mediator means basically you learn to listen. That enabled me to talk to these women in the shelter without judgment. I thought this could never happen to me. The biggest lesson was seeing myself in them.
Initially, I performed in all the Israeli jails. The men told me about their lives, their pressures. It made me realize that criticism about gender should be on both sides. Even men imbibe subtle messages about being strong and being providers, about making money. It's a societal issue.
How has the current tour impacted your life?
Outside Pondicherry, another woman explained to me that married women weren't supposed to dance. But she wanted to perform for International Womens' Day. So, a band of women said to her husband: "She is radiant when she dances. You should see her." He cried when he did. Then, he shopped for her costume. Their path to change is inspiring. It's without anger, without burning brassieres. They don't talk about divorce or the burdens of their lives. That's a path I would like to learn to walk down.
Any other cherished memories from interactions?
There was a sweet-faced Israeli woman who said to me: "You know, Naomi. That was me. I was the woman in your play. But I have to tell you my husband died five years ago of a heart attack, and I'm still afraid of him." To me, that's the essence of the cycle of violence.
Could you share a little about your workshops with children at risk?
I recently did a play in Israel with a group of Ethiopian Jewish girls, who suffer terrible racism mainly because of their dark skin. Those who come from broken homes are at risk to prostitution or drugs.
Through theatre games, we created a safe environment where they could talk about school, their mothers, their pressures. We evolved a play about an Ethiopian-Israeli woman who's about to get an Oscar in Hollywood. She comes back to Israel to be interviewed by a local TV channel. Each question leads to a flashback in her life. Or rather, our lives.
Later, one of the girls said to me, "Naomi, if I can do this, I can do anything." Being on stage gives you so much self-confidence.
How did you experience Palestine as a woman?
I feel, especially with my Palestinian women friends, that if women were running this world, we would have had peace a long time ago. We don't agree about everything. But we try to share what is the same between us. We always say it's the women who'll bring about change because we're teaching the children. I don't want my children and my friend's children on the Palestinian side growing up into war or oppression or fear.
(The Hindu Metroplus, Bangalore, 2003)