My Name Is Asher Lev   |  ★★★★ | Aggregate Theatre Company  |  Mosaic Festival  |  Ridge Road Baptist Church, Raleigh (2/10-12)  |  Jewish Community Center, Durham (2/16-19)  |

Mlima’s Tale   |  ★★★★½ | Burning Coal Theatre Company  |  Through Feb. 12 

In the intimate side chapel at Ridge Road Baptist Church in Raleigh, an unlikely figure steps onstage and speaks.

“My name is Asher Lev,” he begins. “I am an observant Jew. A Hasid.”

A moment passes as he calmly assesses us with an artist’s eye. Then he adds, “And yes, of course: observant Jews do not paint crucifixions.”

Those familiar with the works of Chaim Potok will immediately recognize the opening to his best-selling autobiographical novel from the 1970s, in Aggregate Theatre’s current production of My Name Is Asher Lev. But why is it playing in a Baptist church this weekend—and a Jewish community center in Durham next week?

The interfaith production is the centerpiece of Ridge Road’s Mosaic Festival, a yearly exploration of art and religion including music, panel discussions, and a curated tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The band Chatham Rabbits and novelist Clyde Edgerton headlined last year’s festival.

“This neighborhood is passionate about the arts,” says Trey Davis, the pastor at Ridge Road Baptist Church. “Art brings people from many different ages, incomes, backgrounds, and ethnicities together. When it’s done right, I like to think that faith can do that as well.”

When he challenged Matthew Hager, Aggregate’s founder, to stage a show on art and faith, Hager recalled a powerful production of My Name Is Asher Lev that he saw off-Broadway in 2015. The title character was the same age as the audience Hager’s company is trying to reach: young professionals in their mid-twenties-to-thirties, many of whom feel that local theaters aren’t telling their stories.

Potok’s protagonist, a child growing up in a neighborhood patterned on the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, struggles in a conflict between his family, community, faith, and art, which ultimately discloses the truth of his own experiences with all of these. 

When the church approved the production, Hager reached out to Marshall Botvinick, a rising young director in the region who grew up in a Lubavitcher community. An all-Jewish cast performs the drama.

“It was very important to them to not produce this piece in a silo,” says Jack Reitz, director for engagement at Durham’s Jewish for Good, which is co-producing the show. “One of the first things Marshall did was connect with experts in Jewish culture in the field.”

“We wanted people to be able to trust that we’re telling the story well, and doing it right,” Hager says.

Hager realizes he also has to counter the stigma that has associated political conservative extremism with the Baptist faith: “‘How could they possibly welcome viewpoints that aren’t fundamentalist or Christian into their space?’”

“But all Baptists are not those awful people who are making our laws,” Hager notes. “There are spaces at Ridge Road and within this community that value other voices, other viewpoints, and other religions.”

During and after Asher’s opening monologue, actor Liam Yates’s character coolly navigates the chambers of the past, nimbly threading between the present and past as he leads us through a potential minefield of memories. Though Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s richer novel sometimes only skirts the life events that shape the young artist, actor Rebecca Bossen (in designer Jane Caradale’s pitch-perfect period costumes) ably channels the anxieties and grief of a Jewish wife and mother coping with depression in an age before its effects were well understood. Ryan Madanick digs with gusto into the roles of Asher’s uncomprehending political activist father, artistic mentor Jacob Kahn, and the discerning rebbe, the community’s spiritual leader.

Ultimately Asher’s art is caught between the rebbe’s injunction to do no harm and Kahn’s one aesthetic dictum: do not lie. Sometimes, the truth hurts.

In My Name Is Asher Lev, if a child’s gifts—and his knowledge of a dysfunctional family’s secrets—are not acknowledged and respected, he will redouble, deepen, and amplify his efforts to communicate them. When made as public as they are here, in the words of Leonard Cohen, private lives will suddenly explode—and a reckoning long deferred comes immediately due.

In a number of cultures, chalk, rice powder, and white paint have been used to denote the presence of the dead. In Butoh dance and Day of the Dead commemorations, the color denotes a connection to spirits.

Appropriately enough, the color is also hard to control: it goes everywhere and can be very hard to take off. In Mlima’s Tale, whose lyrical production closes this weekend at Burning Coal, it is the dead who mark the living in white. After the title character, one of the last big-tusk bull elephants to survive the illegal ivory trade in Kenya, is finally felled by a poacher’s poisoned spear, Mlima roams the planet, to face each person responsible for his death.

There is no shortage of theatrical poetry in this superior work, as rising director Ana Radulescu assembles a top-flight design team to match equally accomplished actors on stage. Christopher Popowich’s nuanced lighting and Emma Hasselback’s deep and ambient soundscape merge the natural world with unnatural insights, as set designer Xinuan Li’s oversized tusk reaches for the rafters of the Burning Coal space.

Though it hides actor Preston Campbell from different parts of the audience at first, it then literally opens and unfolds the tale of Mlima’s trek across Africa and the ocean, as he witnesses—and marks—corrupt and complicit government agents, shippers, artisans, and, finally, consumers.

Emerging actor Ada Chang, young stage veteran Khalil LeSaldo, and Sean “Ickye” Delgado-Cruz impress across a broad range of supporting characters. But Campbell anchors the work, synthesizing Radulescu’s direction and Willie Hinton’s African-dance-based choreography to marvelously embody the easy authority of a monarch among elephants, the starkness of his death pains, and the fluid force of his movements as a spirit determined not only to know and see his killers but mark them, permanently. Highly recommended. 

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