Two rival gangs circle in anticipation of a fight as the lights come up on the stage of Anis Theater in Jaffa, Israel. The setting is gritty, 1950s New York. The music is quintessential Leonard Bernstein. The production is the Broadway classic "West Side Story" (1957), and it is at once both familiar and strange.
Yep, those finger-snapping, dancing gangsters are still there. But in this bilingual adaptation, they're played by Jewish and Arab students from neighboring high schools in greater Tel Aviv. The gang members swagger and sling taunts in both Hebrew and Arabic. And the lead parts of Tony and Maria are each shared by two actors, one Jewish Israeli and one Arab Israeli, who swap the roles every other scene.
Life in Israel may be full of drama, but for this troupe of ninth-grade students, the drama they create is on their own terms, and the packed house is happy to snap along with them.
Hailing from Gymnasia Herzliya, a Jewish school in North Tel Aviv, and Ironi Yud-Bet, an Arab school in Jaffa, the students are participants in a special theater program created by Peace Child Israel, a non-profit arts organization in Tel Aviv.
Founded in 1988, the reconciliation group uses theater to teach democratic values, coexistence, and mutual respect to students from across ethnic divisions in Israel. USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv are sponsoring this year's program with a Conflict Management and Mitigation grant.
However, things didn't exactly get off to a smooth start when the participants first met, explains Karuan Hassis, 15, a young Arab Israeli student who shares the lead role of Maria with her Jewish counterpart.
Months before rehearsals began, the students took part in a three-day seminar where they read the script, held discussions and broke down stereotypes about one another through role playing and improvisation. A theater professional and a trained mediator facilitated the seminar -- one is Jewish, the other is Arab.
"At first we didn't know anything about one another, and there were these conflicting issues of identity," Hassis explains. "You have the Jewish actors identifying themselves as Israelis and the Arab actors identifying themselves as Palestinian. But as you get to know one another, you learn you shouldn't judge a person by how they label themselves on the outside -- you have to learn about the person inside.”
The script becomes the trigger for discussion, says Melisse Lewine-Boskovich, the current director of Peace Child Israel and a former professional actor who has mentored students for more than 10 years.
"In West Side Story, you have issues of ethnic conflict, territory, gender roles, and honor killings. And we ask the students, what's the connection between this scene we're working on and life here?" Lewine-Boskovich says. "It's a jumping point for debate about many issues at stake in Israel."
The use of both Hebrew and Arabic is also a key element of the program, enabling participants from both cultures to feel comfortable expressing themselves without limitations, says Jessica Levy, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer for Embassy Tel Aviv.
"Though Israeli Arab students are generally proficient in Hebrew, speaking in their mother tongue allows them to feel that their culture is valued," she says. "After sitting in on a rehearsal, I overheard Hebrew conversations sprinkled with Arabic slang and vice-versa. This appreciation for each other's language is important because it can open the door to appreciation for other aspects of culture."
Nofar Marelli, 15, who plays one of the gang members in the musical, says the seminar transformed many of the stereotypes she previously held.
"It's funny because if we saw each other on the street, we might never stop, we'd just continue on," she admits. "But now that we had a chance to get to know each other on an individual level, I learned that even though there are differences in culture, we're all human beings, we're all equal."
Jewish student Yuval Zeidman, 15, plays the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets gang. The biggest lesson she learned is that like rival gangs learning to live with one another in the melting pot of Manhattan, there is room for everyone in Israel, too.
"I learned that my country can be for both groups of people, both Jews and Arabs," she says. "If we're 15 years old and we can come together and get along, then adults can too."
In the final act of the musical, rival gang member Chino shoots and kills Tony. Maria grabs the gun, but instead of turning it on herself or spiraling into revenge, she ultimately puts it down, leading the two gangs to reconcile. In a symbolic move, the Sharks help the Jets carry Tony's body away.
As the last note fades, the audience of Jewish and Arab students erupts in an ovation for the young performers, all the more moving because it's an affirmation that crosses sectarian lines.
Backstage after the show, emotions run high as many of the students realize it's the beginning of the end of their work together. They will perform "West Side Story" later that evening for their parents and then again for a wider Tel Aviv audience at a gala event in May.
But after the closeness created in weekly rehearsals, the students won't see each other nearly as often and things won't be the same, Marelli laments. Still the experience has been worth it. Her favorite part of the musical is the end, she says, "when all the enemies become friends."
For these students, who once found themselves on opposite sides of Israel's political divide, hopefully it is just the beginning.