Posted by Ashur Bet Goldeberg (220.127.116.11) on December 30, 2001 at 00:49:23:
Several years ago, growing up Assyrian in Chicago, I approached some Assyrian organizations and churches with the idea of creating a children's theater group. I was interested in the theater myself, though my parents had given me a lot of trouble about becomming an actor. I was twenty three then, just moved out of the house...living on my own and not quite sure what to do. I had a regular job, but still wanted to combine my love of the theater with my love for our heritage...and I especially liked working with our young children. I had helped out at a church day care center and really enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm the children had for everything, especially our history...at least the way I used to tell it to them...sort of re-creating the exciting moments in history when something of significance happened.
I came up with the idea to stage a play, casting the children, to show some scene from our past. I chose a famous battle and said the boys and girls could both dress up as soldiers. I wrote a simple two act play about the battle outside Jerusalem, when Shalmanessar almost, but not quite, vanquished that city. He'd been successful against other cities in Judah but this one escaped him, at least historians seemed unsure as to the final outcome. I wrote it in such a way that the final result was a little ambiguous but "leaning" towards an Assyrian victory and decided to look around to see how we could do it.
I approached the then president of the Federation, I forget his name now. He said money wqs really tight that year. I tried the AUA and got about the same answer, although they left a little hope by asking me to come back if I got support from anyone else. The two churches I tried also said money was a problem just then, but one suggested I put together a budget and come back...if any one else offered support. I finally apoproached some prominant people in the community, a few doctors and businessmen and got essentially the same reply..."come back if anyone else offers to help."
I thought it might not be a bad idea to draw up a budget, would look more professional and serious that way, also people could see exactly what the money was to be used for. It took about a week, in my spare time, getting all the prices down, trying to find the best deals on lights and sound equipment, fabric for costumes and some little props, like plastic swords and shields and things. One of the bridal shops said they had extra white satin I could have, from the end of a roll...it had been water stained etc.
The entire budget came to $367.00. I wrote it up nicely, typed it out several times till I got it right, then made the rounds again to see those who'd been interested. The Federation was still broke and thought the cost was too high. They wanted to know what I needed lights for...wasn't there any lighting in the school auditorium I was going to borrow for one night? I tried explaining that you needed additional stage lighting to make the characters on stage leap out at you, also to set off the main points of interest. But finally they made me cut the lights and promised to help, if someone else would. I went around to all the others and each of them suggested I remove something from the budget then come back when someone showed interest. I watched sadly as the make-up went, then the little tape recorder and the "march" music I was going to rent...at cost because my sister works for the rental company. I tried to hang on to the swords but those had to go also...at least swords for all the soldiers were eliminated...the king and one other soldier were to have "full armor", everyone else was to hold a ruler and cardboard shield. The fabric budget was reduced quite a bit too. I wanted to make little "boot covers" to go over the children's shoes but we had only enough for three soldiers and the king, the rest would have to wear what they had. All in all it was a pretty depressing thing but I tried to keep my enthusiasm going, and I kept thinking of the performance and how pleased the parents would be.
I carved the budget down to $175.00 and got $30.00 from one church...$25.00 from another and $75.00 from the AUA. The Federation was still broke. I made up the rest from my pay check that month and didn't mind at all. I even snuck three more fake boots and a sword into the budget.
I'd hoped to have some of the ladies sew the boots and some short skirts and things but when I asked one group they were busy and the other group declined when they found out I'd approached the other group first. Seems they'd had a falling out some months earlier and neither of the women's groups would help out. My mother is pretty good with a needle, or at least she used to be, so together she and my sister and I did what we could to make the few costumes as nice possible. Unfortunately we couldn't afford the plastic chest pieces and helmets, they weren't really Assyrian, but the kids would have liked them...so we used cardboard and covered it with aluminium foil.
One of the things that got dropped from the budget was some printed cards we could sort of pass out after church and leave in the shops around our neighborhood. We did manage to get one of the radio stations to mention it twice and the priest at our church told people about it the Sunday before the performance.
Come the big night and seven people showed up. I tried to avoid Bingo nights and party nights, but it was hard squeezing us in, and it had to be a weekday because the auditorium was being used on week ends by the local high school to rehearse a play because there had been a fire in their own.
For lighting I'd rigged up some bare bulbs on extension cords and made some sort of device from foil that aimed the light...sort of. I had to run around backstage through the whole performance and I'm afraid the people out front could hear me, though I took my shoes off. What they couldn't hear was the dialogue as we didn't have a sound system and I couldn't get the children to speak up any louder. Except for little Sargon who really put his heart into it...like he did into alomost everything. He really acted the part of the Assyrian king beautifully, though his armor fell off twice and his plastic sword broke the first time he swung it. But he carried on stoutly, as did they all. They really gave it everything they had. I do wish I could have said the same for the community though.
My improvised lighting burned out in the second act, the final act...right when king Shalmanessar raises his broken sword in triumph and walks off stage left, his soldiers turning slowly to watch their hero depart the field of battle. Unfortunately they couldn't see him...neither could the audience as I'd turned down the house lights right at that moment for dramatic effect...just when my rigged up lighting fizzled out. Poor little Sargon tripped and fell. It took three stitches to close the cut in his knee. But he didn't even notice...came out to take his bow, blood running down his bare leg, into the fake boot.
I was so proud of them, and yet I was embarrassed for them too...embarrassed for all of us.
I wont go into all the details but two years later I married a nice Jewish woman and decided to take her name...that's why I'm Bet Goldeberg now.
We moved into her old neighborhood and I took over the theater and drama class at Temple Beth Israel. I've been there a year now and it has been most challenging and satisfying. We have a ladies group that meets twice a week just to do things for the drama students. They're about the same age as my Assyrian kids were...from seven to about twelve with a few younger ones here and there. We have an annual budget and the local merchants supply us with what we need, if they have it. So far my first year we've put on Romeo and Juliet and The Wizard of Oz. The Synagogue has a little theater off to the side which we have almost to ourselves...there is a debating society we share it with, but our schedules don't really conflict. Oh yes, and there is a cake sale and a bingo night devoted just to our budget which I've been told will increase each year.
I've had no trouble being an outsider and no one has suggested I join the faith. Having married into their family, so to speak, I am as welcome as I could wish. Our first child will attend school there as several people, non Jews too, are interested in it because it has the highest standards, almost, and has very good results. She will have Hebrew class and of course history comes with it. I will always speak to her what Assyrian words I remember and tell her of her proud and noble heritage.
But, I have to admit that it bothers me at times...I mean my being over here where there is so much to offer these children, while across town the Assyrian children I left behind are no better off then when I was there. And I was just doing it because I wanted to...there was never any mention, or any possibility of a salary. I don't make that much now...but at least I'm doing what I really like to do...working with children...and at least I have something to work with.
I wish that was the end of it, but the worst part comes now. A few months ago I had what I thought was an excellent idea. We would re-stage the play I'd written and invite the Assyrian children from across town to play the part of the Assyrian army and king...and my Jewish students would play the ancient Jews. I presented the idea to the Rabbi and he liked it. I went back to the old neighborhood and discussed the idea with some of the parents and the priest. Once they understood it would cost them nothing, they agreed.
I spent a hectic two weeks driving back and forth across town rehearsing both sets of actors. Some of my old students were still there and a few were glad to see me. Sargon was there and he seemed a little distant. I tried talking to him once but he said it was no big deal...he understood why I'd left. The sad part is I really think he did understand...he wasn't angry at me, not really...but he didn't know who to be angry with, though in the end he was just plain angry...at no one maybe...but anger was in him.
There was a major problem in costumes and props. The Assyrian kids didn't have any, and my students had plenty, and of every kind. We managed to get enough to go around and we put a sort of plume on the helmets of the Assyrian army so you could tell which was which. The children looked pretty much similar. The only thing we didn't have enough of were boots to go over their shoes. I tried to get some money from the rabbi, that is I thought about asking, but just couldn't do it. And I wasn't about to go back to the same people I'd approached years before for these same kids, so the Assyrian Army came in what shoes it had at home.
The play went well. This time the place was full. All the parents of my Jewish students were there, as were their grandparents and friends. There wasn't an empty seat in the place...and standing room in back only. The Assyrian parents came too this time.
Now I had had some doubts about how to end the play. After all in my original version the Assyrian army seems to win a decisive engagement. But now I had Jewish parents all around me, we were in a Synagogue...and by the looks of things on stage, the Jews were far better equipped and prepared for battle than the Assyrians. I'd decided to leave the ending even more ambiguous...with both kings sort of signaling a victory and making a short speech before the armies marched off in separate directions.
Trouble was when the time came, the spot lights came up only on the Jeweish king. From the audience you saw a dark place where the Assyrian army was standing...and the only gesture of victory anyone saw was that made by the Jewish king. I don't know what happened...I don't want to say someone did it deliberately...but I'll never know for sure.
The children didn't seem to mind...the Assyrian kids were just glad to be there, to have dressing rooms and mirrors and pancake make-up and all the slats and ropes backstage. Afterwards we had a social hour and the families mingled, eating cookies, tea and cofee... the usual stuff. Everyone seemed pretty pleased... except for Sargon. My wife pointed him out to me, standing in a corner off by himself, away from everyone. I grabbed a cookie and a glass of milk and walked over to him. His back was sort of turned towards me. I called out his name as I approached. he didn't move so I walked around to face him. Then I saw...he was crying. Not a lot, but you could see he had been a little. What he looked most though was angry...and frustrated. I asked him gently what the matter was and after asking it a few times he manged to say, through clenched teeth, something like..."that wasn't fair...the Assyrians should have won...we should have won..we did, didn't we...isn't that the way you wrote it first, for us"?
What could I say? I felt badly for him and regardless of who won that old and ancient battle, what was really bothering him was that they had lost the battle that night. He had been handed a defeat where he expected a victory...where he deserved one...for the honest truth is that Sargon was the best actor I ever saw. I 've often wondered about him, and worried that he too would somehow not find a way to win his battles in this life...now, not back then.
It sounds trite, but then I must be that way, because it's what I honestly felt.
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