THE Arab-Israeli theater group Eshet Afrat is a unique proof of working feminism. Despite their nation's conflict, Eshet Afra's members identify their project as political only in its exploration of themselves as women.
In the play ``Cycles,'' the actresses chronicle the pressures common to their lives without effacing their personal differences. The piece explores connections among women regardless of culture or circumstance. It also challenges women to look beyond political enmity to common concerns.
Eshet Afra, translated as ``Women of the Earth,'' uses a strategy that is anything but polemical. The play comprises a series of scenes in which the four actresses shift among roles of Lulu and her three favorite dolls. As Lulu matures, her dolls take on adult lives of their own, with opinions that both clarify and confuse Lulu's sense of the world around her.
The scenarios present abstracted interpretations of each actress's life experience; while a young Israeli Lulu tries to define herself through dressing for a date, an Arabic Lulu searches for self-expression through traditional dance. Although the specifics change with the character's ages and cultures, the play's central problem remains the negotiation of a unified female identity.
The project was conceived as a way for the actresses to learn from each other's personal and artistic experience.
Corinne Bar Yakov, an Australian-born Israeli actress, had lost touch with the Palestinian actress Iman Aoun for seven years before they met again at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in Scotland.
``When I met Iman years ago, I had never known a Palestinian before,'' Ms. Bar Yakov says. ``I quickly felt very close to her because she was not only a Palestinian, but also an actress.'' Both performers express great respect for each other as artists but attribute their strong relationship to the fact that they are women.
``It's the big reason our friendship lasted,'' Ms. Aoun says.
Bar Yakov agrees: ``I just don't make friends like that with men.''
Even though they are all women, the players of Eshet Afrat come to the project with very different perspectives. Raeda Ghazaleh, a Palestinian raised in a traditional Arab family in the West Bank town of Ramallah, spent years convincing her father that she should pursue a career in theater. With little theater in Palestinian culture, and far fewer actresses than actors, Ms. Ghazaleh also faced her parents' concern for her safety at night and for her financial security. Ghazalah spent a year studying hotel management before her parents agreed that she should accept a scholarship to Jerusalem's School for Visual Theater.
Aoun's father had similar objections, but she cut them short by marrying a member of the theater group El Hakawaiti. Now a mother, social worker, and founding member of the region's only Palestinian acting school, Aoun's responsibilities differ as much from those of Ghazaleh as from Eshet Afra's Israeli members, Bar Yakov and American-born Naomi Ackerman.
Bar Yakov transferred to the theater department from her course in agriculture after becoming fascinated by plays she translated for a fellow student at Hebrew University.
Ms. Ackerman earned a degree in Special Education and rejected a PhD course in order to train as an actress. Ackerman sees her decision as highly relevant to feminism. ``I had to dare to do what seemed out of place for a woman of my education,'' she says. ``The challenge is making up new rules as you go along.''
In addition to breaking new ground with ``Cycles,'' each of the women is dedicated to broader educational issues. Bar Yakov works as a school administrator, and Ghazaleh teaches acting outside the group. Ackerman has helped design and implement a drama program that helps bring children with special needs back into regular school classes. She finds that theater skills satisfy the students' needs as well as her own. ``I would feel like an idiot just standing in front of a class,'' she says. ``Theater games actually demonstrate what you want to accomplish, rather than simply discussing it.''
Likewise, Aoun's innovative school, Ashtar, teaches Palestinian students more than just theater techniques. Through acting exercises, classes have begun breaking traditional cultural boundaries that separate boys and girls in everyday social situations.
``Only slowly did they begin to feel comfortable,'' Aoun says, ``but by the end of the year, actors who couldn't look each other in the eye at the beginning hugged each other onstage without embarrassment.''
Eshet Afra's lessons will probably vary from audience to audience. Salwa Kanaana, the group's translator and assistant director, does not think that Arab culture as a whole is ready to deal with women's issues, either within the family or in the arts.
``It's very tricky because the most important thing in a woman's life is her reputation,'' she says. If an Arab woman's behavior is misunderstood, her chances of marriage could be jeopardized. ``You can be an old maid here at the age of 25,'' Ms. Kanaana says.
Added to the women's cultural differences, the members' differing ideas ensured a long rehearsal process. Heated discussions dominated the group's meetings while each member tried to be sensitive to the others.
``The process was not a democracy,'' Kanaana says. ``If one person objected, we went with the opinion of that minority.''
``Cycles'' both enhances and blurs the differences among the women's experiences by combining Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Each actress commits herself to a different language for the course of each scene, but the action progresses as though the dialogue were not multilingual. The strategy literalizes the play's demand that women of different cultures learn from each other despite seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Eshet Afra is that the director is a man. After the original director Joyce Klein left, the actresses chose Shai Bar Yakov, Corinne's husband and professor of theater at Hebrew University. Corinne explained that, from the beginning, the actresses had wanted a man as a sounding board.
``We don't think we can disassociate ourselves from men in our work when society mixes men and women in profound ways,'' she says.
Bar Yakov and her colleagues feel they have greatly benefited from Shai's expertise.
``Shai is good at restating the options for clarity's sake without imposing a decision on the group,'' Kanaana says. ``Everyone has such strong opinions that sometimes we forget to listen to each other.''
Nevertheless, Eshet Afra has found inspiration even in conflict.
``We were under such pressure for time because of everyone's obligations outside the group,'' Mr. Bar Yakov says. ``We realized that struggling among roles was the most difficult problem to solve and very much a feminist issue.'' It quickly became the central problem of the ``Cycles.''
The company has performed in Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem, and they plan a tour of Europe and the United States. The greatest testament to the group's success is the quality of the production. Without preaching or resorting to cliches, Eshet Afra explores challenges faced by women everywhere. In situations that range from the familiar to the exotic, and styles that shift from naturalism to the ridiculous, the richness of ``Cycles'' lies in raising complex questions, but refusing to give easy answers.