By Steve North
(JTA) – There’s a long and poignant story behind the T-shirt that Ari’el Stachel often wears these days. It says, in Hebrew letters, “Totzeret Teman” – “Product of Yemen.” The unexpected juxtaposition of two cultures, Israeli and Arab, is as fascinating and complex as Stachel himself.
Stachel, 26, made his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” based on the 2007 Israeli movie about an Egyptian police band stranded in a tiny Israeli village in the Negev Desert, and which on June 10 won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The California-born son of an Israeli-Yemeni father and an Ashkenazi mother from New York, Stachel won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a musical for his performance as a romantic Egyptian trumpeter in the musical, while Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) won for Best Actor in a Musical and Katrina Lenk for Best Actress in a Musical for their roles as, respectively, the leader of the band and the Israeli cafe owner who takes him in.
In the play, Stachel plays Haled, an Egyptian trumpeter, who like his fellow band mates quietly connects with his Jewish hosts during a long night of eating, flirting, roller skating (at a disco, no less) and, of course, music making.
The show’s theme of how Arabs and Jews come to terms with each other is perhaps not nearly as dramatic as Stachel’s own journey of coming to terms with himself. The tall, dark-skinned performer spent nearly a third of his life telling people he was half African-American.
“My father’s parents came to Israel in the 1950s,” he explained, “and my dad was born in an immigrant absorption tent city near the town of Hadera. When he was 24, he followed a woman he’d met on a kibbutz to the U.S. and ended up in California, where he met my mom while they were Israeli folk dancing. He was the only one in his family to leave Israel.”
The family name in Yemen was Garama, but became Yeshayahu in Israel. Stachel’s parents divorced when he was young, and he opted to use his mother’s Ashkenazic last name.
“It was just one of the many ways I avoided my identity,” he said ruefully.
That struggle began at a Jewish day school in Berkeley, where Stachel was raised.
“In third grade, someone told me I was too black to be Jewish,” he recalled. “In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, with maybe nine students of color there out of 900. I started to see that I was perceived as black, so I re-created my identity as an African-American; all my friends were black.”
Stachel smiled as he recalled visiting his best buddy’s home, where “his grandmother would treat me like a black kid, cooking me soul food. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a community without any reservation. I felt most comfortable and accepted through this African-American grandmother.”
By high school, said Stachel, “I started avoiding being seen in public with my father. I didn’t want to be seen with somebody who looked like an Arab.”
Only in private did the conflicted teenager embrace his heritage, listening to the Israeli-Yemeni singer Tsion Golan, eating his favorite food – the Yemeni Israeli pastry jachnun – and often visiting his family in Israel for a month at a time. As a baby, his first word was “balon,” Hebrew for balloon.
“Hebrew was spoken exclusively in my father’s house – he only spoke with his new partner in Hebrew, which is where my ‘fluent-adjacency’ comes from,” Stachel said.
Stachel didn’t have a bar mitzvah in California, but “I was in Israel during the last week of my 13th year, and my uncle, who is more religious, was dismayed. He set up a Yemeni bar mitzvah for me four days before I turned 14.”
The deep love Stachel had for his family made his continuing disavowal of their backgrounds impossible to reconcile.
“I knew I wanted to do something public, either as an NBA player or an actor,” he said, “and I remember looking at myself in the mirror in eighth grade and thinking, ‘How on earth can I do that and still pretend that I’m not Middle Eastern?’”
At 15, realizing he wouldn’t make it in pro basketball, Stachel’s mother urged him to try out for his school musical.
“I got the role, in which I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a pear,” he recalled, “and my mom said, ‘You know, you have a voice!’” Stachel switched to an arts school, honed his talents, and moved to New York in 2009 to attend New York University’s musical theater program.
The watershed moment in both Stachel’s personal and professional lives came when he first read the script for “The Band’s Visit” in 2015, which opened off-Broadway the following year. Reading the character of Haled, the handsome Egyptian musician who is obsessed with the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, “I knew immediately that it needed to be my role.”
It took the show’s creative team seven auditions by Stachel over nine months to arrive at the same conclusion. There were moments of deep doubt and frustration, the actor acknowledged.
“Looking at my parents, seeing where I come from, there was this feeling that there’s no way my dreams are ever going to come true,” he said. “But over the course of those nine months, I started to believe in myself, and by the final audition it was just mine.”
The Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “The Full Monty”) and book by Itamar Moses (another son of Israeli parents), earned rave reviews. And for Stachel, who garnered Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best featured actor in a musical, it changed everything.
“The role allows me to exist as myself, proudly, as a Middle Eastern person,” Stachel said. “For eight or 10 years of my life, I couldn’t tell people I was of Yemeni descent without breaking into a cold sweat. Now, because of the visibility of this role, because people are accepting us with open arms, I can be myself. I get to wear this baseball cap [offstage] which says ‘shalom, salaam, and peace.’ I feel like I straddle all these identities.”
In his Tony acceptance speech, Stachel acknowledged his parents, who were in the audience, saying the musical led him to again embrace an identity he had long avoided.
“Both my parents are here tonight. I have avoided so many events with them because for so many years of my life I pretended I was not a Middle Eastern person,” he said. “And after 9/11 it was very, very difficult for me, and so I concealed and I missed so many special events with them. And they’re looking at me right now and I can’t believe it.”
He also thanked producer Orin Wolf “for telling a small story about Arabs and Israelis getting along at a time where we need that more than ever.”
As for the future of this Yemeni-Ashkenazi-Jewish-Californian-American actor, Stachel is eager to tell his personal story, and those of others.
“My experience of the world was shaped very much by the way I looked,” he said. “Now I feel that having this distinctive identity gives me an opportunity to shed light on the diverse lives of Middle Eastern people. I feel like I have a birthright to play these roles.”