New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"It Sounds Better in Amharic"
Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Conn.

Just another nice Jewish boy? Not exactly. Yossi Vassa is a black Ethiopian Jew (by birth), an Israeli (by choice), and a visitor to the States (by profession).

Israel citizenship was not exactly Yossi’s choice, however, since he made Aliyah at the age of eight. His family was part of the historic, arduous trek of the Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas, back to the land of their forefathers some twenty years ago.

Moving from medieval times to a modern western civilization must have been traumatic for those newcomers. They were thrown precipitously into a new world, forced to adapt to western values, western technology, western plumbing—and new names. But young people, if Yossi can be offered as an example, made the adjustment amazingly well. Yossi would follow his bent and blossom under an Israeli education.

And now, as a gifted performer and a graduate of Haifa University’s Theatre Arts Department, he is visiting the States with his one-man show, “It Sounds Better in Amharic.” (Note: Amharic is the Ethiopian language.)

It is in fact a return visit. We saw Yossi’s show several years ago at a Conference given by the Association for Jewish Theatre. At that time we were blown away by his performance—AND his story. It made every other show offered at the Conference pale by comparison.

But Yossi’s recent return engagement in New Haven, Connecticut, has proved to be a disappointment. There is something to be said for the expression, “you can’t go home again.” This refers not only to the return to places and people, but to the return of shows.

Why does the show falter? For one thing, Yossi was performing in the wrong venue. With a solo performance that cries out for intimacy, he was placed on the gargantuan stage of the 1600-seat Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Secondly, his show, the curtain-raiser for the Big Event, the appearance of a rock star, received no advance publicity, while the rock star, one Chuck Berry, was well-publicized.

The one-night occasion was Community One, the big gala held annually by The Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven (Connecticut) and its several Jewish agencies. The Jewish community turned out in full force, digging deep into their pockets, to see the show—but, more importantly, to provide a sense of Jewish solidarity, continuity, and community.

And they came to see the musical icon Chuck Berry. At the eleventh hour, as it turned out, Chuck Berry was ill, and was replaced by a fellow rock star, Little Richard.

But, back to Yossi. His story, as we recall it from the past, was indeed moving, funny, tragic, and ultimately triumphant. And his personality is warm, endearing, clever, engaging. But the tight, non-stop impact of his earlier show has given way to a longer, often boring, version. Perhaps he was told to lengthen the tale. Too bad. And he was difficult to hear, and even more difficult to understand (had his English grown rusty?) across the far reaches of the theater.

On one level Yossi is an Ethiopian Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic with a delicious routine, with wry commentaries on the contradictions and culture clashes of his world. Those moments, for example, when he compares his parent’s strict values with those of the surrounding permissive Israeli parents are hilarious.

But Yossi has a far more important tale to tell—that of the refugees trekking across the desert to reach the Promised Land. It took Yossi’s family, and others, three months to cross the 700-kilometer desert on foot, finally crossing the border into the Sudan—and then another nine months in a blistering, waterless refugee camp, awaiting repatriation. Along the way, Yossi’s two younger brothers and his grandmother perished, as did many others.

Yossi Vassa will be performing again in Mexico and North America in January, and at the International Arts Festival in San Francisco in May. One only hopes that he will tighten up his act, polish up his English, and demand a more intimate theater. At its best, and in the best of circumstances, “It’s Better in Amharic” is a remarkable one-man show.

-- Irene Backalenick
October 6, 2006

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