It starts with a song — a simple one, like something heard around a thousand campfires on a summer night: eight young people on a bare stage, standing in a circle, snapping fingers, throwing in more and more gestures and movements until the song becomes a dance. These kids — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, we soon learn — are singing about Father Abraham, their common ancestor. It’s the beginning of a startling, searing, tear-brimming hour of theater called the Children of Abraham Project. It has the power to move mountains.
This work is the result of a passionate collaboration between Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit; Brenda Naomi Rosenberg, a Bloomfield Hills interfaith activist; imam Abdullah El-Amin, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan; Ann Arbor playwright Rachel Urist; and the National Conference for Community and Justice. In the aftermath of the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, Rosenberg, the program explains, “decided to dedicate her life to building bridges of understanding between Detroit’s diverse communities.” In a quest for new ways to view and understand the kaleidoscope of issues, conflicts, and prejudices that have defined world politics for too many years, she went to visit El- Amin. He told her, “If everyone would remember we had the same father, Father Abraham, and that both his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together to bury their father, it would go a long way to bringing our estranged families back together. It might even help end the bloodshed.” The conversation led to a dream: of a play that would examine the conflicts between the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths by focusing on their common elements.
Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater — renowned internationally for fearless, innovative work based in improvisation, layered texts, and rousing musicianship — seemed the perfect vehicle for Rosenberg’s vision. For months, twenty Detroit teens — some were deeply devout, others had given their faiths only perfunctory thought — came together to discuss their fears and the possibility of peace between their three religions. From these conversations, texts and scenes were created: monologues, songs, physical depictions of biblical stories, poetry, dance. Playwright Urist came on board to craft the raw material into a play that uses the story of Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael as a springboard for so much more. Rick Sperling directed.
How to describe this? Today, two months after I saw its local premiere at the U-M’s Residential College in mid-December, scenes and images still gleam like rubies. An American Jewish girl talks longingly about Israel as her homeland. A young Muslim man remembers a day in Beirut when the screaming of Israeli fighter jets shattered windows around him. A young Christian man talks about his faith and his family. A Muslim girl in a head scarf stands alone in a light, singing a song so intricate and exquisite it seems almost impossible. The throughline, that “peace begins with conversation,” allows the players and the audience to feel the discomfort that such conversations might elicit. The Children of Abraham lay it on the table for all to see.
For me, as thrilling and somehow satisfying as the work was, the best part came afterward: a discussion among the audience, the writers and producers, the cast, and a panel of U-M students representing all of the faiths described. This was truly fascinating. Questions and comments fairly flew. People seemed so grateful to have this unusual forum — rendered somehow safer, perhaps, by the presence of so many fresh-faced, scarily talented teenagers. This seemed to me the point of the evening — a dialogue between people of different faiths (and people for whom faith itself might mean a host of different things). There were comments on obscure points in the Koran or biblical history. One woman said emphatically that the conflict in Israel was “about land,” that the focus on the religious aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “a hole in the play.” Others disagreed or offered differently shaded views. The U-M students spoke eloquently about their reactions. I was delighted and astounded to learn from the cast that, for the most part, these kids weren’t “playing” their own religions: the girl who sang the Muslim song, for example, so soulfully, so sadly, was Jewish.
The Children of Abraham Project needs to be seen near and far. The Bible Belt comes to mind. Your chance is Monday, March 14, at Washtenaw Community College.